Are consumer advocates an endangered species?

By | May 10th, 2011

These are hard times for consumer advocates.

In Ohio, the Consumers’ Counsel, which advocates for residents utility issues, is under fire from lawmakers. Although the office claims to have saved consumers $54 million in the last two years by objecting to and paring down utility rate increases, Ohio’s governor says the consumers’ counsel duplicates the work of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which regulates utility rates and services.

The governor wants to cut the consumers’ counsel budget for next year in half, from $8.5 million to $4.1 million.

A similar battle is being waged on the federal level, where Senate Republicans are trying to block consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren from being named to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In a legislative maneuver, the Senators sent a letter to President Obama saying that they will not confirm any nominee, regardless of party affiliation, to be the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until it is “accountable to the American people.”

They’re troubled by what they say is the director’s “unfettered authority to regulate businesses that extend consumer credit,” adding that, when it comes to the new bureau’s budget, “no checks and balances are provided on how it is spent.”

Consumer groups say the Republicans are afraid Warren, a well-respected consumer advocate, will hurt the very business interests they represent.

I’ve already covered the demise of a previous generation of consumer advocates. Is government about to kill this generation, too?

Let me be clear about this: Advocating for consumers is a dead-end job. It takes someone with a clinical rescue complex, and who is blind to the career-limiting nature of such work, to become an effective advocate.

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Believe me, I know.

You’re constantly criticized by your co-workers, supervisors and constituents. Also, you are threatened with lawsuits. Half of your audience is angry at you for not doing enough, the other half is angry at corporate America. What’s more, it’s a burnout job with virtually no retirement benefits. The odds of you ending up doing informercials to make ends meet during your golden years are high.

But that’s nothing new. Consumer advocates — real consumer advocates — have always been under fire. It’s part of the job description.

Are they an endangered species, though?

Perhaps. The political winds are blowing in the wrong direction at the moment. We’re entering a pro-business, anti-consumer era. Which is too bad.

Personally, I think we can have it both ways. We can have an environment where business can get done without the heavy hand of government, and where the rights of consumers are respected. Advocates have a role to play in that kind of world.

Actually, ethical businesses have an obligation to support that kind of peaceful co-existence. They should know that when a competitor can do anything it wants, and can get away with it, it’s no just bad for customers. It’s bad for them, too.

(Photo: VID YO/Flickr Creative Commons)

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