EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Pertschuk, who died late last year, was a long-time, inspirational member of The Nation’s editorial board. As a Senate staff member and later the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, he played a major role in the consumer protection movement. Here, his fellow advocate and friend Ralph Nader remembers a man who was once called the “101st senator.”
The tumultuous start of the 118th Congress has planted it squarely in the public eye. We should broaden out our field of vision to include congressional staff members. These unsung but influential aides should be made aware of what their predecessors accomplished in the past, led by Michael Pertschuk.
Who was Michael Pertschuk? He was the gentlest, kindest man and the most ferocious, consumer advocate in American history. He believed that Congress should exercise robust constitutional powers, and that (unlike our current gridlocked one) it should be an initiator of legislative action on behalf of the American people.
One of the best sources on Mike’s career is his memoir, When the Senate Worked for Us. It describes how he guided a group of congressional staff members in the 1960s and 1970s who were instrumental in passing consumer, labor, and environmental legislation. Mike was so worried that the passage of time would see a devolution of Congress’s will and capability to act in the public interest that he wrote his memoir, published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2017.
In the fall of that year, Mike, then in his mid-80s, traveled to Washington to promote his book. After a couple of publicity events, he returned to his home to Santa Fe, disappointed.
After he left, I called Bob Cusack, the editor of The Hill, and asked why they had not reported on Mike’s visit or on his book. “Oh,” he said, “but that’s history.”
That history is something we should study and apply to today, and Mike’s book contains valuable lessons for progressives who are looking to recover Congress’s relevance to in their cause. Mike believed that Congress possessed the constitutional authority to be first among equals with the Executive and Judicial branches. He believed that Congress could be the initiator of legislative action. That it should not wait for signals from the White House or the federal agencies to act, and that congressional committees should enlist the Executive Branch’s support.
Mike was an effective advocate for several reasons.
He always gave credit to the senators chairing subcommittees. With his predecessor Jerry Grinstein, he persuaded Senator Warren Magnuson, chair of the powerful Commerce Committee, to assign bills to subcommittees whose hearings and output best reflected a constituency that was most passionate about that particular issue.
When I proposed auto safety legislation to Mike in 1965, he told me that the Senate Commerce Committee was too dominated by industry lobbyists to take on the giant auto companies. But one of Mike’s talents was a sense of what issues appealed to the voters. In November 1966, less than one year after the publication of my book Unsafe At Any Speed, the historic highway and auto safety bills were enacted and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mike urged staffers to meet with opposing corporate lawyers so as to make a pro-and-con case before their senators. When the courtesy was extended to corporate’ lobbyists they were flummoxed. As one of them put it: “You just can’t hate these guys. They don’t question our motives; they listen and intelligently discuss our views. Next thing you know, they’ve lined up the senators on their side.”
Mike and his associates were “finishers.” They helped take bills to the Senate floor and then shepherded them through the House and onto the White House. Those that ended up on President Richard Nixon’s desk included the pioneering air and water pollution legislation, the consumer product safety law, the occupational health and safety law, and legislation creating new agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
He enlisted two important allies to bolster his efforts. The first was citizen groups, whom he involved in all levels of legislative process. The second was the media, both the national media and the regional papers.
He also wooed Republicans, such as Senator Norris Cotton of New Hampshire on the highway and auto safety legislation. Cotton even cosponsored the Consumer Product Safety bill with Senator Magnuson, thus assuring its passage by an overwhelming majority.
Mike always delegated important legislative jobs to congressional subcommittee staff members with whom he worked. That policy not only increased their productivity; it also generated more press coverage and more home-district support for subcommittee members. He sought out passionate advocates on specific products, such as the physician from Seattle who brought him grim evidence that children’s pajamas were highly flammable. This resulted in a strengthening of the Flammable Fabrics Act, with the physician as a major witness at the highly publicized committee hearing.
Mike made politics bend to the realities. I brought him evidence of filthy meat and poultry plants, and testimony by Department of Agriculture inspectors that they were being overridden by company bosses who went to the politicos who ran the agency. Mike intervened. Result: the 1968 Meat and Poultry Inspection Act.
A few years later, Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, brought Mike evidence of useless warranties that left buyers of vehicles with mechanical defects with few remedies. Ditlow came from a car-dealer family and was a lawyer and engineer. Result: the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, to help people whose vehicles turned out to be lemons to obtain justice. That federal law was followed by almost every state passing a so-called lemon law. A similar process led to the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act 1974 and the Toxic Substances Control Act 1976.
Mike’s earliest and most prolonged reform drive took on the tobacco industry, at a time when the United States was recording 9,000 deaths of smokers every week. In 1960, when he was a staffer with Senator Maurine Neuberger (D-Ore.), he worked to pass laws regulating cigarette advertising and to end free promotions to middle school children that hooked them on cigarettes.
After he joined the Commerce Committee staff, his challenges became more influential. With physicians and attorneys around the country, he worked on legislation to ban cigarette ads on TV and radio and to more stringent warning labels on each cigarette pack. After leaving government service, he traveled the world highlighting the deadly health effects of smoking. The Philip Morris Company called Pertschuk their “number-one enemy.” Mike took this as a compliment, saying, “I spent a good part of my life making life miserable for the tobacco companies, and I’m not sorry about that.”
The 1980s, when Mike served as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, were dark times for the consumer and environmental movements. Leading advocates on Capitol Hill, including Senator Magnuson, were swept away in the Reagan landslide. Enforcement of health and safety protections declined; agency budgets were frozen or reduced. It was the beginning of the Big Business lobbies’ accelerating supremacy. In 1984, Mike and his allies founded the Advocacy Institute to train the next generation of public advocates.
His influence continued to wane as the two political parties competed feverishly for corporate campaign dollars. Today, corporate supremacy over Congress has lasted so long that the present generation of congressional staffers has forgotten that there was once a time when Congress worked five days a week, deliberated, held hearings and passed bills that helped people where they lived, worked, and raised their families. We must remember that history.
Mike Pertschuk’s book still offers valuable lessons for the progressives in Congress and the public who are looking to recover their former influence. It defines standards to which the citizenry should hold both lawmakers and their staff to ensure democratically responsible performance.