To the Congress of the United States:
The task of helping consumers understand and shape the powers of their government has become more difficult, and more important, through the years. As the Federal Government has grown, individual citizens have found it harder to learn how and where and when to go to influence the many government decisions which make a difference in their lives. As the technology of our society has become more complex, Congress and the President have delegated more responsibility to regulatory technicians, whose activities affect consumers profoundly but are difficult for average citizens to study, influence, and understand.
For several years there has been a movement in Congress and among the people to create a strong voice in government to speak up for the consumer. Today I am recommending measures which will expand and accelerate that movement.
The first of these measures is the creation of an Agency for Consumer Advocacy, which will bring to fruition eight years of bipartisan effort in the Congress.
This Agency will be a small, effective group; its purpose will be to plead the consumer's case within the government. It will not require major additions to the government's size or operations; in significant part, it can be established by drawing together resources now scattered throughout the government. It will not be another regulatory agency. Its purpose is to improve the way rules, regulations, and decisions are made and carried out, rather than issuing new rules itself. It will help the Congress and help me search out programs which are inefficient or have outlived their purpose, and will help us correct inequities in programs and procedures which are supposed to protect consumers.
The Agency will aid in the fight against inflation by monitoring governmental actions that unnecessarily raise costs for consumers. Many government activities affect prices: The government establishes rates, standards and incentives for private businesses to follow, and it is itself a major purchaser of goods and services. In all these areas, the Agency will use its powers of intervention and of information collection, analysis and dissemination to keep costs down.
By establishing the Agency, the Congress can give new meaning to the phrase "in the interest of consumers" found throughout the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.
The basic format of the Agency for Consumer Advocacy has been refined and perfected in eight years of debate by Congress. I support that framework. In particular, I believe that the following principles should be reflected in a bill creating the Agency:
First, most government consumer functions should be consolidated in the Agency. The Office of Management and Budget has begun a comprehensive review to help me identify those units that should be transferred to the Agency. This review will also determine how remaining functions in the individual agencies can be strengthened. Of course, I still expect that all Federal agencies will be responsive to the consumer's concerns.
Second, the Administrator of the Agency, like the heads of other executive agencies, should be appointed by the President and serve at his pleasure. The Agency should be subject to the normal executive budget and legislative clearance procedures. Accountability within the executive branch is necessary to ensure that the Agency will be as vigorous and effective as the people expect. It will not undermine the independence of the Agency's representational role.
Third, the Agency should be empowered to intervene or otherwise participate in proceedings before federal agencies, when necessary to assure adequate representation or [of] consumer interests, and in judicial proceedings involving Agency action. The Agency, at its discretion, should be represented by its own lawyers. I will instruct the Administrator to establish responsible priorities for consumer. advocacy.
Fourth, the Agency should have its own information-gathering authority, including, under appropriate safeguards, access to information held by other government agencies and private concerns. However, small businesses should be exempt from the Agency's direct information-gathering authority. Additional safeguards should be included to assure that needless burdens are not imposed on businesses or other government agencies.
The Agency for Consumer Advocacy is mainly designed for participation in very large administrative proceedings; it is only one of a number of steps which will better protect the consumer. Members of my Administration, in the months ahead, will comment to the Congress on a variety of these steps. There are three of them I would like to mention now; they are measures which the Congress has been considering, and which I believe would complement the ACA.
The first is legislation to help consumer groups represent themselves in agency and judicial proceedings. I support Congressional efforts to assist citizen groups to participate in the proceedings of federal agencies, where their participation may lead to a more balanced decision. I also recommend that Congress enact legislation that would give the federal courts more discretion to reimburse litigation costs for plaintiffs who win cases of public importance involving the government.
Second, I support legislation which will give citizens broader standing to initiate suits against the government, in appropriate cases. The government has too often routinely invoked the "standing" defense when it is challenged in court. The Department of Justice will work with my Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs, Esther Peterson, and with the Congress toward legislation to reform this practice.
Third, I support the effort to enable consumers to sue as a class to enforce their rights. Recent court decisions have greatly restricted their ability to do so. I want to expand the opportunities for responsible class actions, starting with violations of consumers' rights. The Department of Justice and Mrs. Peterson will work with the Congress to develop suitable legislation.
These measures--and the others which members of my Administration will discuss in the months ahead--will enhance the consumer's influence within the government without creating another unwieldy bureaucracy. I believe they will increase confidence in government by demonstrating that government is considering the people's needs in a sensitive and responsive way.
The White House,
April 6, 1977.