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Michael Pertschuk on When The Senate Worked for Us — The Invisible Role of Staffers in Countering Corporate Lobbies

For years, Congress has been dominated by special interests, and many people do not remember a time when Congress legislated in the public interest.

In the 1960s and ’70s, lobbyists were aggressive but were countered by progressive senators and representatives.

Now comes Michael Pertschuk with a new book titled When the Senate Worked for Us — The Invisible Role of Staffers in Countering Corporate Lobbies (Vanderbilt University Press, October 2017).

In the book Pertschuk tells the untold story of the contribution of entrepreneurial congressional staff, who planted the seeds of public interest bills in their bosses’ minds and maneuvered to counteract the influence of lobbyists to pass laws to protect consumers and the public health.

Pertschuk draws on many interviews and his fifteen years on the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee that Senator Warren Magnuson chaired and as Democratic Staff Director. That committee became, in Ralph Nader’s words, “the Grand Central Station for consumer protection advocates.”

In your book, you seem to be saying that the staff of the committee hijacked a relatively conservative Senator’s political operation for the public interest.

“Yes. Jim Ridgeway was a good lefty reporter for the Village Voice. He had a brisk statement to make about a year after I got there,” Pertschuk told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Something like – Senator Magnuson is busily changing his identity from corporate stooge to consumer protector.”

“One of the people I had met at the time was a Commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission — Philip Elman. This was in 1963. He asked me if I would sit down and talk with someone who had a serious story to tell. And I remember having coffee with a fellow named Ralph Nader. It was before anybody knew him. At that breakfast, he went through a analysis of how corrupt the auto industry was. He talked about the auto companies spending nothing on safety, everything on design and marketing. But they weren’t alone. The insurance companies were benefiting because there were so many accidents and they kept raising their prices. The guys that made their living fixing cars were involved. And even the surgeons were benefiting. All were benefiting from the car accidents. And Nader said — the Senate Commerce Committee had to do something about it.”

“I listened to Nader. I believed what he said. And then I said — there is no way in hell that the Senate Commerce Committee is going to pass legislation regulating the auto industry in Detroit. At that time, the auto industry was the most powerful lobby in the country.”

“Ralph went away a little bit discouraged, but he was Ralph Nader. The next step he took was to go to Senator Abraham Ribicoff and his staff guy Jerome Sonosky.”

“The one thing that Magnuson did not like was somebody else stealing his jurisdiction. As Ribicoff got great news coverage over the issue with Ralph and General Motors, Magnuson was getting more and more annoyed. Magnuson then was ready to take on the auto industry itself — not because of any great passion over it but because of the rivalry with Ribicoff. And Jerry convinced him that this would be a feather in his cap if he could get this done.”

At the time, there was a battle over whether criminal penalties should be in the auto safety law. Why didn’t criminal penalties make it into the auto safety law?

“Ralph had raised it late in the development of the legislation. The committee was voting on it. The auto industry had managed to get enough votes to turn it down. Magnuson had tried to put it back in on the floor of the Senate, and it went down. The major reason was there was a very aggressive Senator, John Pastore from Rhode Island. He was close to Magnuson in seniority. He felt it was an insult to the auto industry to suggest that they would have criminal risk. He took the floor of the Senate as a Democrat to oppose it. And that killed it.”

“I had worked very closely with Ralph the whole time. The thing that drove the auto lobby crazy was that I gave Ralph a seat at the table. The committee was voting on the bill. It was my responsibility to write the report of the committee on the bill. I had invited Ralph and the chief lobbyist for the auto industry — Lloyd Cutler — to sit in separate rooms and read what I was writing in a 48 hour period. Each of them had a shot at criticizing what I was writing. It drove the auto lobbyists crazy that I would put Ralph and Cutler together. Ralph was in one room, Cutler was in the other. And I listened to them both.”

“Cutler was extremely skillful in taking what I said and coming up with another amendment. Ralph was just as strong – maybe stronger – in saying – this is no good.”

Did Nader raise the criminal penalties issue during that back and forth?

“No. The issue of criminal penalties did not really rise to the committee until very close to the end. The final action of the committee was when the committee voted to send the bill to the Senate.”

“At that point, it was my responsibility to write the report on the bill that would accompany the bill to the Senate floor. There was nothing about criminal penalties at that point. The criminal penalties issue came up — maybe on the floor of the Senate. It did not come up in the committee. And I’m not sure that Magnuson himself offered it, but I think he did.”

“Ralph did something that he almost never did. He understood that Magnuson made a strong try for it and was defeated. He did not blame Magnuson for that.”

You wrote this in your book:

“To ensure that I captured the meaning and intent of each section of the bill, I invited Nader and Cutler to park in separate rooms adjoining my office for the duration of my drafting session. Nader was grateful — and ready. Cutler was offended. He resented being lowered to the same status as Nader, but he had no choice.”

“Each time I finished a draft section of the report, I showed it to them simultaneously, seeking their comments and suggestions. Cutler hovered over each sentence with his sharp eye, offering objection first and then subtle changes. Sensitive to his deviousness, I took his suggestions across the hall to Nader, who guided me to reject any poison pills. Every time I redrafted a section, I took it back again to both men. This tortuous process stretched through a long day and into the evening. Neither Nader nor Cutler was fully satisfied, but in the end, the report raised no cries of outrage from Cutler and received sober approval from Nader.”

“We sent the bill to the Senate floor, where it was quickly taken up and passed by a large margin, averting efforts to eliminate the strengthening amendments that had survived through the committee’s markup.”

Was this the last time that Nader put his stamp of approval on a bill approved by a corporate lobbyist?

“I wouldn’t say he approved of it – but he let it go. The House bill was rotten. It was a product of the auto industry.”

Was this Magnuson committee with staffers like yourself and Jerry Grinstein pushing public interest legislation – was that a one off in Congress? Or were there other pockets fighting off corporate lobbyists?

The Magnuson committee was the core of resistance to corporate power in the Senate at that time?

“Absolutely. After the auto safety bill passed, I sat around with the Committee’s staff director Jerry Grinstein and a couple of staff people and said — this was fun, what else can we do for consumer protection. And that led to a fairly long but finally successful process of the creating the independent Consumer Product Safety Commission. We had completed the auto safety bill.”

“We couldn’t get it through right away. As a first step, we developed and Congress passed a Congressional resolution to create a study commission. And we packed the study commission with strong members and strong staff. And the Washington Post reporter Morton Mintz was at his best reporting on the commission. The commission traveled around the country, held hearings on product safety. It had a strong staff, led by Mike Lemov.”

“Of note, the resolution was co-sponsored by Norris Cotton, the ranking Republican on the committee. There wasn’t much opposition. It was going to be a strong and aggressive commission. Morton traveled around the country with the commission, reporting on these safety hazards that were arising.”

Pertschuk’s next book is about his time at the Federal Trade Commission. Working title? There is No Such Thing as An Independent Regulatory Agency.

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Michael Pertschuk, see 31 Corporate Crime Reporter (39)(11), Monday October 9, 2017, print edition only.]

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