Challenges & Opportunities for Consumer Rights at the 52nd Consumer Assembly

Last week, Public Citizen was honored to join some of the brightest minds in the consumer movement at Consumer Federation of America’s52nd Annual Consumer Assembly. The yearly gathering provides consumer advocates with an opportunity to talk about their impactful work and share innovative ideas for addressing harms against consumers.

During a panel discussion, Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, spoke on crafting effective strategies for ensuring that federal agencies put consumers first. Weissman emphasized that there are still plenty of opportunities for the consumer movement to make real progress in protecting consumers even though the current administration displays unprecedented hostility toward consumer protections given ongoing regulatory rollbacks of critical health, safety, and environmental safeguards.

Weissman said that while we can learn some lessons from the consumer movement’s successes during previous consumer-unfriendly administrations, we must also learn some new tactics in order to tackle challenging new threats. For instance, a great deal of the harm against consumers is flying below the radar because President Donald Trump tends to attract so much attention toward himself that his administration is able to pass its harmful agenda without significant scrutiny. So, it’s up to advocates to break through that noise with persistent media outreach, including via social media, thoughtfully using messaging that resonates with the public and engages them to raise their voices and join the fight. Weissman also noted that consumer advocates must continue to be creative and thoughtful about what constitutes a consumer issue; the threat to Medicaid posed by last year’s attempts at repeal of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, is arguably the gravest threat consumers have faced in the Trump era, even though Medicaid is not typically thought of as a “consumer issue.”

Weissman also sees opportunities for advancements for consumer protection even amidst the general onslaught on consumers. For instance, he pointed to the way that we have a unique opportunity for online privacy protections as this issue currently has the public’s attention more than ever given the threats to our privacy from Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Weissman also pointed to the incredible progress that state and local consumer advocates have been making on behalf of consumers.

However, the biggest takeaway from Weissman’s points was the importance of collecting stories of affected individuals in developing a compelling argument about the true costs of harmful policies, in real life terms. He also emphasized that for the remainder of this current anti-consumer administration, we can utilize methods like boycotts and pressure campaigns against brand-sensitive companies when they make consumer unfriendly decisions, and can work on developing the ideas and policies we’d like implemented when control of Washington eventually shifts to more consumer-friendly public servants. In fact, we just saw this tactic work successfully this week after Uber and Lyft improved their customer policies in response to pressure from Public Citizen and the public.

Public Citizen’s Counsel for Civil Justice and Consumer Rights, Remington A. Gregg, also spoke on a Consumer Assembly panel on the topic of “The Role of Civil Penalties in Consumer Protection.” Gregg provided many examples of how civil penalties are essential to safeguarding consumers. He also discussed how advocates must ensure that consumer agencies, such as the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), have strong enforcement tools at their disposal to prevent corporate actors from being lax with public health and safety standards in an attempt to cut corners and increase profits.

According to Gregg, the general view of Obama administration agencies was that penalties for violations of health and safety laws should be harsh enough to effectively deter misconduct. Agency leaders in the Trump administration, who often have spent their entire careers working for corporations, have taken a far more corporate-friendly approach. Under this new approach, agencies like the CPSC are using civil penalties less frequently and are assessing them for smaller dollar amounts. According to Gregg, this more lenient “slap on the wrist” approach has sometimes led businesses to feel that the relatively lighter civil penalties they may face are an acceptable “cost of doing business,” and are therefore not an effective deterrent to stop corporate wrongdoing.

Gregg emphasized the need to continue to collect data such as the CPSC’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System to monitor trends in consumer safety and the use of civil penalties. The public needs access to transparent information about the use of civil penalties and the rationale behind them in order to ensure that agencies are doing enough to protect consumers.

Public Citizen and our allies will continue to work to find effective new ways to move forward consumer protections why we defend and strengthen the tools we currently have in place. But, we can’t do it without you! Please let us know how you want to get involved in our consumer protection work.