The son of an immigrant furrier, Mr. Pertschuk grew up on Long Island, graduated from Yale Law School and came to Washington as a young Senate staffer in the early 1960s, just as the modern consumer rights movement was beginning to take shape.
With activist Ralph Nader as his public face, Mr. Pertschuk helped lead the movement, first behind the scenes on the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee under Chairman Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) and later as Chairman of the FTC under President Jimmy Carter. .
For decades, Mr. Pertschuk has emboldened advocates — and industry leaders — with his winning campaign to entrench and enforce government surveillance in the marketplace. “He touched every single person in this country,” Nader said in an interview, describing Mr. Pertschuk as the “fierceest consumer advocate on a congressional staff in American history.”
Mr. Pertschuk joined the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee in 1964 as chief counsel, later serving as director of staff. He was part of a small coterie of Senate aides, wrote a Washington Post reporter in 1977, who occupied “the top layer of an invisible web of power and staff influence in the Senate, impacting the life of every citizen of the United States. ”
Magnuson, who campaigned on the slogan “Keep the big boys honest,” focused much of the Commerce Committee’s activity on consumer protection legislation. Whether with admiration or resentment, Mr. Pertschuk was sometimes called the “101st senator” for his pivotal role in this work.
One of Mr. Pertschuk’s first targets was the tobacco industry. In the mid and late 1960s, he was instrumental in drafting legislation requiring cigarette packets to carry the warning: “Caution: Smoking may be hazardous to your health”, as well as legislation banning cigarette advertising on television and radio.
“Among other things, I spent a good part of my life making life miserable for the tobacco companies,” Mr. Pertschuk later recalled. “And I’m not sorry about that.”
Another key target of his work was the automobile industry, whose safety shortcomings Nader exposed in his 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.” (Mr. Pertschuk and Nader worked together so intensely that when Nader attended a birthday party for Mr. Pertschuk, Mr. Pertschuk’s wife made Nader promise to stop calling their house after 10 p.m.)
Through vigorous lobbying by automakers, Mr. Pertschuk helped pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which established safety standards for car manufacturing.
“The number of lives that have been saved because of this law is incredible – millions and millions of lives,” said Joan Claybrook, who served under Carter as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency created by legislation also directed. by Mr. Pertschuk.
Mr. Pertschuk helped enact the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, which created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Magnuson-Moss Act of 1975 governing consumer product warranties.
His powerful role on the committee has at times drawn criticism from the Republican minority, which has traditionally defended business interests against what it sees as excessive government power. But it also helped bring him to the attention of President Jimmy Carter, who nominated him for chairman of the FTC in 1977.
The FTC, once referred to as the “old lady of Pennsylvania Avenue,” had already begun under previous presidents to take a more aggressive approach to surveillance. But Mr. Pertschuk took an even tougher stance, aiming, he said, to make the agency “the best public interest law firm in the country.”
In Washington’s sea of conservative suits, Mr. Pertschuk stood out in his turtlenecks, the FTCWatch newsletter noted in a retrospective article on Mr. Pertschuk’s tenure. Although armed with the Ivy League credentials that could have guaranteed him a position at a white shoe law firm, he promised he would not appear before the commission if he entered legal practice after having left the government.
“He is not determined to make money,” the bulletin noted when he was in office. “He is determined to make a difference.”
Mr. Pertschuk continued to fight the tobacco industry, particularly its efforts to market cigarettes to children.
“Probably no one has had a greater impact on the generation of the movement that reduced tobacco use in the United States than Mike Pertschuk,” said Matthew L. Myers, an attorney who has investigated tobacco marketing under Mr. Pertschuk’s leadership at the FTC and is now chairman of the advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which Mr. Pertschuk helped create.
But when Mr. Pertschuk began to take aim at the FTC’s regulatory power in other industries, from the medical profession to accounting, he began to face regulatory headwinds. “He quickly became a white-hat hero to the consumer movement,” political scientist Norman J. Ornstein once wrote, and a black-hat villain to conservatives and business.
The discontent culminated in 1978 with the proposed “kidvid” rule – later abandoned – which would have banned certain television advertisements marketing sugary foods to children. A Washington Post editorial denounced the measure as “an absurd intervention that would turn the agency into a grand national nanny.”
In an interview, Robert Reich, who worked under Mr Pertschuk at the FTC and later served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, said the ‘kidvid’ rule was ‘not particularly radical’ and that Mr. Pertschuk viewed it as “very much in the tradition of the FTC’s mandate to protect young children from…advertising directed specifically at them.
He was “surprised, like all of us”, Reich noted, “by the ferocity of the response”.
Several companies have sued to bar Mr. Pertschuk from participating in further agency work on the issue. They scored a first victory when federal judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled that Mr. Pertschuk “conclusively prejudged factual matters that will be disputed in the rule-making proceedings.” The decision was reversed, but Mr. Pertschuk nevertheless withdrew from further discussions.
By then, the FTC led by Mr. Pertschuk had angered members of Congress, who claimed he was an overzealous regulator.
“You have successfully alienated leading citizens from every town and city in Kentucky,” FTCWatch, quoting U.S. Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), told Mr. Pertschuk. “Lawyers, doctors, dentists, optometrists, undertakers, real estate brokers, life insurance companies and salespeople, new and used car dealers, bankers, loan companies and other credit providers, Coke bottlers- Cola…”
Mr. Pertschuk resigned as chairman of the FTC in 1981 after President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, ousted Carter. Mr. Pertschuk remained on the commission until 1984 as a vocal minority member, often sparring with Republican Chairman James C. Miller III.
Shortly before leaving office, Mr. Pertschuk released, at the request of U.S. Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a 273-page report condemning the commission headed by its Republican leaders. . In their zeal for deregulation, he wrote, they had become a “caricature of reform” whose “extremism and ideological blindness have led to a new era of regulatory nihilism and sheer folly”.
After leaving office, Mr. Pertschuk and David Cohen, former chairman of Common Cause, founded the Advocacy Institute, which sought to strengthen the lobbying power of public interest groups.
Michael Pertschuk was born in London on January 12, 1933. His father traveled across Europe in the fur trade, the family business for several generations, and his mother was a housewife.
Both parents were Jews who decided to leave Europe after the rise of Nazism in Germany. They moved to New York in 1937, opening a fur store in Manhattan.
Mr. Pertschuk graduated from Yale University in 1954 and, after two years in the military, earned his law degree in 1959.
His first job in Washington was as legislative aide to U.S. Senator Maurine B. Neuberger (D-Ore.). While on his team, he participated in the committee proceedings that led to Surgeon General Luther L. Terry’s official warning in 1964 linking smoking to cancer and heart disease.
Mr. Pertschuk’s marriage to Carleen Dooley ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 45 years, of Santa Fe, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Amy Pertschuk of Sausalito, California, and Mark Pertschuk of Berkeley, California; a stepson, Daniel Sofaer of Brooklyn; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Pertschuk has written several books, including “Smoke in Their Eyes: Lessons in Movement Leadership From the Tobacco Wars” (2001) and “When the Senator Worked for Us: The Invisible Role of Staffers in Countering Corporate Lobbies” (2017).
“I have been saddened,” he writes in this latest book, “by how few people see government as the answer for themselves or for the country. … My dearest hope is that this book will awaken the young people’s interest in the potential rewards of working in the federal government.