By the time National Consumers Week kicks off this weekend, its sponsor, the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, may be defunct.
The consumer affairs office has been left out of a fiscal 1998 spending bill that Congress recently approved and sent to President Clinton for his signature. The tiny office kept its doors open this month through an interim funding bill, but that authority expires on Thursday.
Republican-led appropriations committees have tried to ax the office twice before, only to see it survive in later budget negotiations between Congress and the White House. But office Director Leslie L. Byrne, a former House Democrat from Virginia, said she feared “the third time is the charm.”
John F. Kennedy had the idea to create the office, Lyndon B. Johnson established it and Richard M. Nixon expanded its mandate. In the early years, its leaders were pioneers of the consumer movement: Esther Peterson, Betty Furness, Virginia H. Knauer and Elizabeth Dole.
“This government is now without a formal consumer voice, and I’m quite annoyed about it,” said Knauer, who served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She criticized members of Congress for not voting to keep the office.
As originally envisioned, the office director served as the chief consumer adviser to the president, and the office analyzed and coordinated all federal activities in the field of consumer protection.
But the glory days, under Peterson and Knauer, when the office staff numbered about 60, have faded. More and more Cabinet departments set up consumer divisions, and the government’s consumer advocacy work became specialized - at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and elsewhere. By the time President Clinton was elected, the consumer office had moved out of the White House complex and staffing had dropped to 21 employees.
Monday, the office staff was placing files and records in boxes for shipment to the government’s archives and compiling an inventory of supplies and equipment.
“We are all quite sad,” said Bernice Friedlander, the office’s communications director. “We’ve got 14 people here who don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from.”
In abolishing the office, Congress turned over one of its most important services, the Consumer’s Resource Handbook, to the Consumer Information Center at the General Services Administration. The handbook provides the names and addresses of manufacturers, Better Business Bureaus and state and local consumer agencies. The handbook also instructed readers on how to write effective complaint letters.
“It’s probably one of the most popular federal publications, period, ever produced,” said Teresa Nasif, the Consumer Information Center director.
About 330,000 copies of the 1997 handbook were published and only 20,000 remain available for distribution.