Consumer Advocates Riding High

Posted February 6, 2007 at 6:45pm

Consumer lobbyists, who have long taken a backseat to their corporate cousins when it comes to Congressional power, are now riding shotgun this Congress.

Not only is the new Democratic majority looking to the public-interest sector to help shape its legislative agenda, but companies and big-business groups also are beating down a path to line up the support — or minimize the opposition— of the most influential lobbyists on consumer and progressive issues.

Those lobbyists include Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs at Consumers Union; Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America; Ron Pollack, executive director of the health care consumers group Families USA; and liberal leaders such as John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, among others.

“The toiling of a lot of these folks in the vineyards of Republican rule are about to bear fruit,” said Democratic lobbyist Joel Johnson, who represents corporate clients that are often on the other side of consumer advocates. “What they say matters. What they think is important. And where they come down on issues is of great interest because they can provide instant credibility, bona fides and validation for any given position.”

Under Democratic rule, these lobbyists also can be tough opponents for corporate America because they have the ear of leadership.

“They have a seat at the table, unlike under the Republican regime,” said a Democratic leadership aide. Consumer groups, this aide added, speak for “a large portion of the Democratic constituency and Democratic caucus.”

Consumer lobbyists have noticed the change.

Kimmelman said the legislative environment has turned pro-consumer on issues from cable television costs to environmental concerns to automobile safety.

“There’s an enormous demand for consumer input as committees begin the oversight process,” he said. “We’re working on overdrive.”

Plunkett said that even though he or other representatives from the Consumer Federation testified more than 40 times last year, he was more likely on the third panel at a hearing when corporate representatives dominated panels one and two. Now, he said, he gets called, long before any hearings, at the beginning when crucial policy decisions get crafted.

“Oversight is a big theme, and people like me are loving it,” Plunkett said. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be calling the shots by any means — Members have their own priorities on consumer issues — but we feel we are being solicited for input from the very beginning.”

Plunkett is working on issues related to the lending practices of credit card companies and said he has long been in touch with financial services companies. However, “I now get urgent calls from people who didn’t talk to me before, companies that perhaps have thumbed their noses before, but now are interested in my opinion,” he said, though he declined to name the companies.

“It is now perceived by business groups that our opinions matter more than they did a year ago,” Plunkett said.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, agreed that the same is true on the Hill. “It’s fair to say a lot of committee chairs and subcommittee chairs are calling on public interest groups for advice and suggestions in a way it didn’t happen before,” she said.

Pollack, who has been executive director at Families USA for more than two dozen years, said that more players on and off Capitol Hill want his attention, too.

“It is true that we’re getting many more calls now and our point of view is given more serious consideration by people who are actually making decisions,” Pollack said. “Our participation in unconventional coalitions or gatherings is given more serious attention because there’s an understanding that we have excellent relationships.”

Mohit Ghose, vice president of public affairs for the insurance lobby group America’s Health Insurance Plans, said that Pollack and AHIP President Karen Ignagni have been lobbying together on health insurance issues for the past two months as part of a broader coalition. “More than anything else it lets us present that united front,” Ghose said.

Galen Reser, an in-house lobbyist for PepsiCo, said consumer groups, which have been critical of high-

calorie soft drinks and snack foods, play a vital role in shaping companies’ policies.

Reser’s company has banded with other corporations and public interest groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to create the Coalition for a Stronger Food and Drug Administration.

“When they’re right on the science, they make us better,” he said. But, he added, often there is competition among the consumer groups to take the most “sensational position,” which isn’t always supported by science.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the CSPI, said that this year her world simply has changed.

“There’s a much warmer reception on Capitol Hill right now,” she said. “In my nearly 20 years of experience lobbying in Washington, I’ve never seen the interest we have right now in industry and consumer groups working together. Part of it is, they know people at the White House and we know people on the Hill.”

Smith DeWaal said that Members she’s worked with over the years have now assumed powerful positions, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who is the new chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

“It’s a sea change in terms of the willingness of people to talk about the ideas you’ve been working on but also the sense that progress can actually be made,” she said.

For consumer lobbyists, it turns out that being in this new position of power and influence means a packed calendar.

Democrats, who are organizing hearings, “need support, backup and data and witnesses, and the advocacy community has to keep pace and support its champions,” said Andrea LaRue, a lobbyist with the firm NVG, whose clients include civil rights, union and consumer-focused organizations.

“I would say it is far busier and more time consuming and hectic than it was a year or more ago,” Pollack said. “I have many more meetings. I would say in January, it was as busy a month as any I can remember.”