From Watchdogs and Whistleblowers: A Reference Guide to Consumer Activism, edited by Stephen Brobeck and Robert Mayer (Greenwood, 2015)
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) was established in 1968 by national, state, and local pro-consumer groups to advocate the consumer interest before the U.S. Congress and federal regulatory agencies. In the last several decades, it has broadened its mission to include advocacy on state issues, assistance to other consumer groups, and the delivery of services directly to consumers. Its role helping to unify the consumer movement is epitomized by the diversity of its membership. Traditionally, member organizations are national, state, or local consumer advocacy groups, the CFA membership also includes state and local protection agencies, public power groups, credit unions, rural electric cooperatives, housing cooperatives, cooperative extension offices, credit counseling agencies, social justice groups, trade unions, and AARP.
CFA was organized by reform-minded advocates during a period of change and social protest. Many of these advocates came from organizations established earlier in the century—Consumers Union, industrial labor unions, and rural electric cooperatives, among others—who viewed the late 1960s as a time when political conditions permitted the establishment of new consumer protections and agencies.
In 1964, representatives of several of these groups headquartered in Washington, D.C., began meeting informally and planning strategy to advance consumer legislation. A year later, these activists began organizing a national consumer forum. Held in April 1966, this Consumer Assembly was cosponsored by thirty national organizations representing workers, small farmers, consumer cooperatives, and women, as well as other consumers. At the meeting, White House Consumer Adviser Esther Peterson urged the creation of a federation of national, state, and local groups to press for consumer legislation.
These organizations formed a steering committee to plan the new federation. Leaders from Consumers Union, the Association of Massachusetts Consumers, the National Consumers League, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the AFL–CIO’s Industrial Union Department, the Steelworkers Union, the Credit Union National Association, the Cooperative League of the U.S.A., and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) were among those who worked the hardest to create the new organization. At the federation’s first annual meeting, held in April 1968, fifty-six charter members elected board members and appointed NRECA staffer Erma Angevine as executive director.
In developing the new organization, its founders were challenged by the fact that the organization’s primary function was consumer advocacy, but at the time, few consumer advocacy groups existed, and most of these groups were run by volunteers. Moreover, the federation’s income depended heavily on contributions from trade unions and consumer cooperatives (as well as from Consumers Union). To ensure that consumer groups controlled CFA, the charter defined nonconsumer organizations such as labor unions as “supporting members” limited them to two votes at the annual meeting. Consumer groups, including co-ops, could cast as many as twenty votes if they contributed at least $200 annually.
Representatives of CFA member organizations had the authority to elect board members and to determine the consumer policies of the organization, which they accomplished at annual meetings of the organization. Recommended policies were presented at these meetings by subcommittees for individual issues areas, such as food and housing, after these recommendations had been reviewed by the chairs of all the subcommittees. Mark Silbergeld, longtime head of the Washington, D.C., office of Consumers Union, chaired this full committee for several decades. His skill played an important role in resolving differences among CFA’s diverse membership.
Erma Angevine served as executive director during an upsurge of consumer activism, most visibly that of Ralph Nader and his “Nader’s Raiders.” Before joining CFA, Angevine had worked for major cooperative organizations, including the Consumer Cooperative Association, the Cooperative League of the U.S.A., and NRECA, where her work included directing women’s activities and serving as consumer lobbyist. Her twofold mission was to take the lead on numerous consumer issues at a time when she had to build the organization from scratch. By 1969, with the help of board members, Angevine had persuaded 140 groups to affiliate with the federation. Their contributions of nearly $100,000 a year allowed her to hire two staffers.
One of Angevine’s greatest challenges was seeking to resolve differences among CFA members, especially those between relatively large trade unions and cooperative groups, which contributed most of the organization’s income, and much smaller state and local consumer groups, which felt they were entitled to run the organization. This disagreement culminated in the withdrawal from the federation of eight state consumer groups, which then organized the Conference on Consumer Organizations (COCO).
At the same time Angevine was seeking to build the organization, she also took the lead on numerous policy issues. As the consumer movement’s chief lobbyist, Angevine involved CFA in dozens of congressional issues, developing position papers and fact sheets, mobilizing CFA members, and communicating with members of Congress and their staffers. Working closely with other consumer advocates, with cooperative and union lobbyists, and with congressional leaders such as senators Philip Hart (D-MI), Warren Magnuson (D-WA), and Paul Douglas (D-IL) and Representative Leonor Sullivan (D-MO), she helped win passage of key consumer legislation such as that dealing with truth in lending and truth in packaging.
At the state level, CFA coordinated opposition to the Uniform Consumer Credit Code, which had been strongly influenced by creditors. Angevine monitored the actions of individual states, recruited volunteer attorneys to analyze provisions of the code, and circulated these analyses widely through the country. When she retired from CFA in 1973, she left behind a federation with a solid organizational foundation and much credibility.
Carol Tucker Foreman succeeded Angevine as executive director. The daughter and granddaughter of Arkansas politicians, Foreman had worked on Capitol Hill, in the executive branch, and in the advocacy community (Planned Parenthood) before joining CFA. This experience and her own personal skills allowed her to heighten the influence of the federation.
In this period, CFA’s annual income available to support advocacy ranged from about $150,000 to $200,000, which supported five core staffers. Because of the effectiveness of Foreman and her staff, CFA was taken seriously on Capitol Hill and widely quoted in the press. High priorities were fighting inflation in the energy and food areas, and seeking to establish a federal consumer protection agency and a consumer cooperative bank. To encourage the election of a pro-consumer Congress, CFA established a Political Action Committee (PAC) that endorsed, but that did not make financial contributions to, congressional candidates. (This PAC was permissible because CFA operated mainly as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. It was discontinued in the early 1990s, and CFA began functioning solely as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization several years later.)
In 1977, Foreman was appointed assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was succeeded as CFA executive director by Kathleen O’Reilly. O’Reilly had practiced law, including helping draft the first federal no-fault insurance legislation. At CFA, O’Reilly was known for her forceful consumer advocacy, testifying more than 200 times before congressional and state legislative bodies. During her tenure as executive director, O’Reilly led successful congressional efforts to reduce sugar price supports and expand protections against credit discrimination. She also worked hard on the unsuccessful effort to create a federal consumer protection agency.
In early 1980, O’Reilly left CFA to run for Congress—she later headed the Wisconsin Citizen Utility Board (CUB) for many years—and was replaced by Stephen Brobeck, who has run the federation since then. Brobeck earned a PhD in American studies in the late 1960s, then taught at Case Western Reserve University throughout the 1970s. During this decade, he also proposed the creation of, and helped lead, a grassroots consumer organization, Cleveland Consumer Action. From 1976 to 1979, he served on the CFA board.
Brobeck’s greatest contributions to CFA have been as a builder. He led the expansion of CFA’s membership and greatly reduced member conflict, in part by working with policy committee chairman Silbergeld to reform the policy resolutions process. He proposed and helped create new organizations such as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Coalition against InsuranceFraud, the TeleConsumer Hotline, and America Saves. He proposed, found initial funding for, and helped lead CFA campaigns on issues including consumer debt, motor vehicle fuel efficiency, consumer literacy, and discriminatory auto insurance practices.
Under Brobeck’s leadership, CFA’s budget increased from $200,000 to well over $3 million, with a substantial reserve fund, which allowed the staff to grow from four persons to twenty-five. Most CFA income now comes from national foundation grants, membership contributions, and conferences and forums supplemented by cy-près court awards.
Brobeck recruited energetic and talented staffers, most of whom had worked earlier for another public interest group. Three policy experts and leaders have been associated with CFA for more than a quarter-century: During this period, research director Mark Cooper, a Yale PhD who has testified hundreds of times in federal and state legislative and regulatory hearings, has been a leading energy and communications expert in the consumer movement. Public affairs director Jack Gillis, who managed CFA’s press relations and for a decade served concurrently as the consumer correspondent for the Today Show, was CFA’s automobile expert as well as author of dozens of annual editions of The Car Book. Director of investor protection Barbara Roper has been the consumer movement’s most influential and visible leader on investment issues.
Other influential policy experts and advocates were active at CFA for at least a decade. Attorney and legislative director Gene Kimmelman (from Public Citizen) has been the consumer movement’s most influential communications lobbyist. Legislative director Travis Plunkett (from AARP and, before that, NYPIRG), who concentrated on financial services issues, often was cited by The Hill as one of the top lobbyists in Washington. Attorney and product safety director Mary Ellen Fise (from the National Consumers League) was the chief consumer advocate monitoring and communicating with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). As product safety director, attorney Rachel Weintraub (from U.S. PIRG) succeeded Fise as the lead consumer advocate before the CPSC and recently succeeded Plunkett as CFA’s legislative director. Financial services director Jean Ann Fox (from the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council), who built a nationwide network of more than 400 advocates working on high-cost lending issues, was a national and state leader on these issues. Chris Waldrop, who directs CFA’s Food Policy Institute, is one of the most active and influential food safety advocates in Washington, D.C. Consumer protection director Susan Grant (from the National Consumers League) has been one of the consumer movement’s leading consumer protection and privacy advocates.
Brobeck also recruited several persons who had held prominent government positions: Carol Tucker Foreman, after her service at USDA and work as an independent lobbyist, rejoined CFA to serve as senior fellow and director of the organization’s new Food Policy Institute, where she continued to be one of the nation’s most influential food safety advocates. J. Robert Hunter, after running the National Insurance Consumer Organization (NICO) for many years and then serving as Texas insurance commissioner, folded NICO into CFA and continued to be the nation’s leading consumer insurance advocate as CFA’s director of insurance. For the decade after he retired from the U.S. Senate in 1994, consumer hero Howard Metzenbaum lobbied his former Senate colleagues as honorary chairman of the federation. In 2008, Barry Zigas, who had served many years as senior vice president in charge of low-income housing at Fannie Mae, became CFA’s housing and housing finance leader.
During Brobeck’s tenure as executive director, two people played key roles helping him run the organization in their position as associate director—during the 1980s and 1990s Ann Lower, an energy expert who had served as Congressman Bob Eckhardt’s chief of staff, and since then Nancy Register, who earlier had helped run national and local nonprofit organizations. Register also worked closely with Brobeck and Cleveland leaders to develop America Saves, a campaign launched in 2001 to help low- and moderate-income Americans save more effectively. For the past decade, she has directed this effort, which has organized nearly a hundred local savings campaigns, recruited more than 1,500 organizations to participate in annual America Saves Weeks, persuaded top Pentagon brass to support Military Saves, and convinced more than 400,000 Americans to develop a specific savings goal and plan to achieve that goal.
Lower and Register also effectively functioned as chief financial officer for CFA as well as supporting membership functions such as the state and local grants program, which was funded by Consumers Union. Also important in this area has been longtime staffer Mel Hall-Crawford, energy efficiency project director, who also led CFA’s membership recruitment. They have played key roles in the evolution of CFA as an increasingly diverse organization that helps unite all types of organizations that are part of a broad consumer movement. CFA’s annual Consumer Assembly, annual membership meeting, policy resolutions process, annual issue conferences, newsletter, forums, briefings, and organizational assistance including grants have helped build this unity.
During the past three decades, CFA’s mission and greatest contributions have related to public policy. In the 1980s, CFA advocates devoted greatest attention to addressing, and frequently opposing, proposals related to deregulation. CFA and allied groups worked with congressional allies to thwart the Reagan administration’s effort to shut down the CPSC and FTC’s Bureau of Competition. Within the consumer movement, CFA was a leader in seeking stronger safety and soundness safeguards in congressional legislation that responded to the savings-and-loan crisis. Throughout the decade, CFA also led consumer movement efforts to deal with telephone deregulation and, early in the next decade, was the lead consumer advocate in persuading Congress to reregulate cable television rates. Also in the 1990s, CFA played roles in convincing Congress to require savings account and home equity loan disclosures and protections.
During the Clinton administration, Congress did little to help consumers. But during the George W. Bush administration, which followed, a new wave of congressional consumer reform began to build, cresting in 2010. CFA provided consumer leadership in passage of all the following laws: the 2002 Public Company Accounting and Reform Act of 2002 (Sarbanes–Oxley), which significantly strengthened auditing standards for publicly held companies; the 2007 Military Lending Act, which, among other reforms, capped payday and car title loans at 36 percent; the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which required increases in the average fuel economy of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2017; the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which significantly increased the budget of the CPSC and gave it new responsibilities and authority to advance product safety; the 2009 Credit CARD Act, which prohibited numerous industry practices that had greatly expanded interest and fee income; the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2010, which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded responsibility and authority to regulate food safety; and the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd–Frank), which included numerous new financial services protections and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to serve as a “cop on the beat” of the financial services marketplace.
Leadership on these issues included preparing and releasing consumer surveys and consumer impact studies, organizing consumer coalitions, recruiting grassroots support, and communicating with Congress through testimony, letters, emails, and conversations. Evidence of this leadership can be seen in the frequency of congressional testimony and policy-related media citations. From the 1970s to the mid-2000s, according to research for a university lecture, CFA and Consumer Union were invited to give congressional testimony far more frequently than any other consumer groups. Moreover, according to a 2006 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, during the 1990s, among think tanks and policy groups, CFA was the consumer group most frequently cited by the media, as well as sixteenth most cited among all organizations.
During the past three decades, CFA advocates devoted even more attention to the work of federal regulatory agencies than to the work of Congress—notably, the CPSC, FDA, USDA, Federal Trade Commission, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Reserve Board, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Securities and Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and, recently, Federal Housing Administration. Through petitions, comments, research, coalitions, and individual communications with agency leaders, CFA has influenced dozens of regulations affecting consumers. During the same period, CFA has frequently intervened at the state level, particularly when states, not the federal government, have major responsibility for overseeing and regulating consumer products and services. That is the case for insurance, nontraditional financial services such as check cashing and small loans, electricity and telephone services, and residential real estate brokerage. CFA’s work in these areas has included organizing state coalitions, preparing and releasing research, filing comments, and communicating with individual regulators. CFA’s achievements include helping persuade many states to preserve existing small loan protections or create new ones, improving real estate consumer disclosures and ending the subagency system, and helping convince many public service commissions to lower utility rates, or restrain increases, especially those borne by low-income consumers.
See also: Conference of Consumer Organizations; Consumer Cooperatives; Consumers Union/Consumer Reports; Peterson, Esther; Labor Movement; State and Local Consumer Advocacy Groups
Angevine, Erma. 1982. “Lobbying and Consumer Federation of America.” In Erma Angevine, ed., Consumer Activists: They Made a Difference (pp. 331–342). Mount Vernon, NY: Consumers Union Foundation.
Brobeck, Stephen. 2009. Lecture given at the University of Utah on the consumer’s right to be heard (March 24).
Cerra, Frances. 1976. “A Lobbyist for Consumers.” New York Times (November 31): III-7. Groseclose, Tim, and Jeffrey Milyo. 2005. “A Measure of Media Bias.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 120, no. 4: 1191+.
Mirow, Deena. 1988. “Brobeck’s Battle for Consumers Moves to Higher Level.” Plain Dealer (September 8): C-4.
Schorr, Burt. 1975. “Winning Friends: When Carol Foreman Talks Consumerism, Congressman Listen.” Wall Street Journal (April 9): 1+.
Swanston, Walterene. 1972. “Consumer Federation Waging Spirited Battle for Survival.” National Journal 4 (July 8): 1,126–1,136.