November 18, 2022
The passing of health and safety champion, Michael Pertschuk concludes a life offering many lessons for members of Congress and their staff. Pertschuk, a Yale Law graduate, was the key staffer for the powerful Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Warren Magnuson (D-WA), for fifteen years. In 1977 President Carter appointed him to become Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.
Pertschuk was a brilliant strategist, organizer and human relations genius while he was reshaping the Commerce Committee into the “Grand Central Station” of consumer protection. Together with his senior staffer, Jerry Grinstein, they persuaded Magnuson to decentralize the work of the Commerce Committee into active subcommittees pursuing different reforms with widely publicized public hearings. This broadened the range of the Committee enormously and provided openings for highly motivated young lawyers whom Pertschuk recruited for these Subcommittees. Their production towered over the Committee’s successors today.
In less than a decade, today’s framework for consumer protection was passed over the opposition of industry lobbyists who, unlike today, knew defeat at the hands of these public servants and energized lawmakers. First came the auto and highway safety bills (1966) then the meat and poultry inspection bills, the flammable fabrics and gas pipeline safety bills, followed by the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Pertschuk not only was the sine qua non inside forces guiding these bills into law, but he fended off corporate lobbyists by giving them access to the Committee staff. He brilliantly maneuvered the Senate-passed bills through the less reliable House of Representatives.
Moving over to the FTC, Pertschuk pioneered the cause of protecting children from cruel and deceptive advertising by the likes of the junk food industry and his opening of investigations into the insurance industry brought on him the ire of the corporate-indentured Congress to block his endeavors. He also ignited the anti-tobacco industry movement on Capitol Hill and later traveled the world motivating other countries to do the same.
Never discouraged, after leaving the Commission in 1984, he and two colleagues started the Citizen Advocacy Center to train hundreds of young people in the skills, stamina and horizons of a deliberative democratic society.
Witnessing the decay of people-centered attention by Capitol Hill, the concentration of power away from chairs of committees by the top leadership and the diminishing of a shrunken Congressional staff to hand-holding, Pertschuk wrote the exceptional memoir in 2017 titled When the Senate Worked for Us (Vanderbilt University Press). In his mid-eighties, he came to Washington from his home in Santa Fe to publicize his book directly within Congress. His only meeting was with Cong. David Price (D-NC), who as a Yale graduate student authored the history of the Commerce Committees for our Congress Project in 1975 (Grossman Publishers). The rest of Capitol Hill couldn’t be bothered to hear out this great American about Congress then as compared to what Congress has now become: a degraded, incommunicado political cocoon mired in the Internet Gulag.
To sum up so inadequately: Michael Pertschuk was the most gentle, kind, ferocious, strategic consumer advocate leading a Congressional staff in American history. For these breakthroughs, he was called the “101st Senator.”