After 12 years with Republicans in the White House, the Democrats are taking a turn. In addition, 122 new members of Congress have taken their places on the Hill, and approval of term limitations in many states suggests that citizens are looking for a change. What will all this mean to consumers?
At the Consumer Assembly sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., last week the overall tone was one of cautious optimism."The Clinton administration presents an array of new opportunities," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of CFA, which is a confederation of 240 pro-consumer education, activist and lobbying groups representing 50 million consumers nationwide. The new administration seems to be showing great interest in consumer issues, said Brobeck. Already, numerous consumer representatives have been invited to White House meetings.
Consumers, he said, were not without influence in the past several years - as shown by passage of cable TV regulation, the new food labeling package, and some gains in product safety and banking regulation.
"But much remains to be done in areas such as product safety, telecommunications, banking, health care."
Issues get more complex all the time, he said, and so does the challenge to come up with policies that serve consumer interests. "We need to understand both the changes taking place in society and the evolving needs of consumers."
So, what's on the consumer agenda for the next four years? What do consumers want and expect from the new administration? Speakers and leaders at the Assembly focused on the following topics:
In a survey of voters looking at what mattered most to them, 43 percent said it was the economy, and 21 percent said the deficit, said Linda DiVall, president of American Viewpoint, a polling and trend-watching organization.
Under that economy umbrella, people care most about jobs, added Peter Hart, director of another research firm. "But the sacred cow of 1993 is budget cuts rather than specific programs."
Kevin Phillips, author of "Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats and the Decline of Middle Class Prosperity," shed further light on why the economy was the prime election issue.
What it comes down to, he says, is that the middle class is working harder and earning less. You look at cost-of-living figures and see that it is going up at 3 percent a year, and that doesn't look so bad, he said. But that doesn't tell the whole story. The cost-of-living index measures basic commodity prices, but not necessarily all that middle America spends its money on.
For example, it doesn't include taxes, Social Security, health care, debt services. It doesn't count higher costs of such basics as magazines and paperback books. And it doesn't count the cost of the collapse of public services and the soaring costs of private services - private schools, private security, transportation and such things as lawyer fees, bank fees and drug costs - all things that were unregulated in the '80s.
"These were the things that frazzled the middle class," said Phil-lips.
And these are the areas where people want relief. Can the Democrats respond? "It's been a long time since the Democrats had a successful administration based on economic principles of the 20th century," said Phillips, so we'll have to see.
This is clearly a top priority for the Clinton administration and one where consumer activists expect to see some real gains. They point to the fact that health-care expenses in the United States now exceed 12 percent of the GNP, higher than any other industrial nation. At the same time, tens of millions of people don't have any insurance or are inadequately insured.
The problem, of course, is that few groups can agree on what the best solution is. Supporters of health-care reform divide into two basic camps: those who would like a single-payer system (similar to the Canadian system, where the government basically takes over the function of the insurance industry); and those who adhere to the latest buzzwords, "managed competition" (where businesses would join co-ops that would in turn collect premiums and negotiate with health-care providers within a certain set framework to provide health care).
The administration - not to mention the insurance industry - seems to be leaning toward managed competition, but the final proposals are not in.
Clinton took a big risk in assigning the task to Hillary, said Kevin Phillips. "If Hillary is on top of things and can solve the problems, it is a bigger laurel leaf for him. If she fails, then he will be harshly criticized for going outside the regular channels."
In the area of financial services, consumers are basically looking for a more consumer-friendly marketplace and to hang on to gains made in recent years, said William Kent Brunette, legislative representative of the American Association of Retired Persons.
Banking issues on the consumer agenda include tighter controls on credit reporting, basic banking service and mortgage discrimination. Insurance areas where action is called for include a look at stronger federal regulation, credit insurance reform, restraining increasing auto insurance rates and increasing consumer awareness of life insurance products available.
Cable regulation still needs some attention, particularly in figuring out how the new cable law can be implemented effectively, say industry watchers.
But, they say, primary emphasis in the telecommunications arena should be placed on stopping telemarketing abuses.
For example, more that $50 million is spent each month on 900 numbers, with calls to so-called psychics, to sex hotlines and other such lines, says Mary L. Azcuenaga, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.
And consumers often call 800 numbers, which they know are toll-free, but they get switched mid-call to a 900 number. Rules governing 900 numbers are currently out for comment, she says. The commission is interested in hearing from anyone with concerns in this area.
ENERGY AND UTILITIES
The new administration will probably provide greater support to energy-efficient measures advocated by both environmentalists and consumerists, says CFA's Brobeck. The latter will push even harder for greater motor vehicle, appliance and building efficiency, and for the development and implementation of cleaner, more efficient technologies.
Overall, products are getting safer, but there is still a push for improvements and strengthened regulations in such areas as motor vehicles and household products. Recent events involving food poisoning in the Northwest have focused attention on the food supply.
And some consumer leaders see so-called "health taxes" - excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol - as likely. "In Canada, excise taxes on cigarettes as high as $1 and $2 a pack have been shown to cut smoking," said Michael Pertschuk, co-director of the Advocacy Institute. "It's a way to save lives." Consumer groups are also targeting alcohol and tobacco billboards.
"Families with declining wages are loosing hope or discarding the dream of owning their own home," said Roy Priest, director of economic development at HUD. The administration hopes to reverse this trend through a 3-part program, he said. First, rejuvenate our urban centers to make them exciting, safe places to live. Second, increase the supply of affordable housing. Third, make sure a lot of resources that are already in place get delivered to the communities that need them through greater efficiency in HUD and integrated strategies with other departments.
The marketplace is getting so complex that consumers need more and more information in order to make wise product choices and utilize available protections. A particular challenge is educating non-English speaking consumers who are new to this country, said Graciela Perez-Trevisan, outreach specialist with Consumer Action in San Francisco. In addition to the language barrier, many of these consumers are unfamiliar with the services and products available. And for many, the whole idea of consumer rights and government protections is something new.
The role of consumer reporters is critical to consumer education, but consumer journalism is in a state of flux in many areas, especially on TV, where more and more consumer reporting is shifting from local news programs to network magazine shows. And newspaper reporters are feeling increased pressures from adver-tisers.
According to Ron Collins, cofounder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism, a study of advertising pressures on newspapers found that 90 percent of the newspapers contacted said they were pressured by advertisers either to run or not run stories; 40 percent said they yielded to those pressures.
Not only do the poor receive low incomes; they also are frequently forced to pay the highest prices for banking services, credit, auto insurance, food, housing and energy.
Although this is not a new problem, it came into focus sharply after the Los Angeles riots last summer, which many people felt were evidence of consumer frustration as much as racial tension.
Poor people pay more in three ways, said Robert Mayer, chairman of the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. They often have to pay more for the same product or service - such as auto insurance or credit rates. They sometimes pay the same amount, but get an inferior product - old lettuce, for example. And sometimes they don't have access at all to goods and services - no health specialists, no banks in their neighborhoods, and no transportation to get to places farther away.