From airbags to X-rays, prescription drugs to cigarettes, Ralph Nader’s long career as a consumer activist regulated corporate responsibility and redefined consumer rights. As public interest historian David Bollier explains in AN UNREASONABLE MAN, Nader “approached health and safety regulation as an ethical and social issue. Corporate America redefined it as an economic issue.”
Nader and his associates mobilized and invigorated the American consumer activist movement by publicly analyzing and criticizing the corporate and governmental powers behind business decisions. In doing so, Nader helped enact legislative acts including the Clean Air Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Nader’s leadership and seed money also helped establish consumer organizations such as Congress Watch, the Health Research Group, the Critical Mass Energy Project, the Tax Reform Research Group and the Litigation Group, all of which were eventually combined to form Public Citizen.
Read about these significant legislative acts credited to Nader.
Freedom of Information Act (1966)
The Freedom of Information Act established the public’s right to obtain information from federal government agencies. The Act provides that, upon request from any person, a federal agency must release any agency record unless that record falls within one of the nine statutory exemptions and three exclusions. Examples of requests might include a copy of medical records on yourself or another person.
The Act was amended in 1974, following the Watergate scandal, to increase agency compliance. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments allowed for greater access to electronic information.
National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (1966)
The passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act authorized the federal government to set standards for motor vehicles and highways. Resulting changes included mandatory seatbelts and new safety features for cars such as headrests and shatter-resistant windshields. Roads were improved by the installation of guardrails, improved lighting and curves, and new barriers that separated traffic lanes.
The results of the act have been profound. Within four years of its passage, motor-vehicle-related death rates had already decreased. According to the National Center for Statistics, 195,382 lives have been saved by seat belts between 1975 and 2004.
Wholesome Meat Act (1967)
The Wholesome Meat Act amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act and required U.S. states to conduct more adequate inspections of meat, therefore raising quality standards. Called an “equal to” law, it gave states two years to develop meat inspection programs equally as good as the federal government’s. If a state did not do so, the federal system would be applied.
Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act (1968)
In 1965, a natural gas pipeline ruptured in Louisiana and killed 17 people, inspiring the enactment of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. This Act authorized the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, acting through the Office of Pipeline Safety, to regulate safe transportation of natural gas, petroleum and other hazardous materials via pipelines.
Clean Air Act (1970)
The Clean Air Act regulated air emissions from stationary, mobile and area sources, authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) to protect the environment and citizens’ health. While the initial goal of the Act was to set and reach NAAQS in all U.S. states by 1975, it was amended in 1977 to set new goals because most states had failed to meet the deadline.
President George H.W. Bush proposed major revisions to the Act in 1989, spurred by a Supreme Court ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. In 1990, additional amendments were created to address issues including acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion and air toxins.
Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)
The Occupational Safety and Health Act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The Act aimed to protect worker health by ensuring that employers provide workers with an environment free from mechanical dangers, excessive noise, exposure to toxins and unsanitary conditions. OSHA also prevents work-related injuries and illnesses by enforcing standards on workplace health and safety. The Act extends to most nongovernmental workplaces as well.
OSHA’s policies were criticized for their costly regulations. Over time, manufacturers have begun to include OSHA-compliant safety features on new machinery, thus saving companies from having to retrofit equipment. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations both tried to weaken OSHA enforcement and rule making. The George W. Bush administration has since largely replaced mandatory standards with voluntary guidelines, such as repealing a standard for ergonomics and replacing it with guidelines.
Consumer Product Safety Act (1972)
The Consumer Product Safety Act established the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) as an independent agency, allowing it to set safety standards and recall or ban products deemed as having unreasonable or substantial safety risks.
In 1994, findings from the CPSC led Congress to pass the Child Safety Protection Act, leading to a decrease in toys with choking hazards. Today, the CPSC has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 types of consumer products and has implemented safety standards on items such as matchbooks, garage door openers and bicycle helmets.
Safe Water Drinking Act (1974)
The Safe Water Drinking Act protects public health by regulating the public drinking water supply. The Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to set national standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally occurring and man-made contaminants that may be found in drinking water.
The Act was amended in 1986 and 1996 to further protect drinking water and sources including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs and ground water wells.
Clean Water Act (1977)
The Clean Water Act is the primary federal U.S. law that governs water pollution. It aimed to eliminate the release of highly toxic substances to water and ensure that surface waters in the country would eventually meet necessary standards. Initially created as an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, the Clean Water Act established the structure for regulating pollution discharges into U.S. waters and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to implement pollution control programs. The Act also made it illegal to discharge pollutants from a point source into navigable waters without a permit and funded the construction of sewage treatment plants.
In 2007, Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold introduced the Clean Water Restoration Act, legislation that reiterated Congress’s intention to protect all U.S. waters of the United States and its original passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments. Environmental groups considered this new act necessary to reverse recent repealed protections for the country’s waters.
Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977)
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was established to prevent corporate bribery of foreign officials. Its major provisions involve accounting transparency requirements and corporate accounts and record keeping. In 1988, the Act was amended to include a “knowing” standard that provided defenses against finding violations.
In 1998, Congress amended the Act to comply with the International Anti-Bribery Act of 1998, which implemented the anti-bribery conventions of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The new amendments made it unlawful for a U.S. person and certain foreign issuers of securities to make a payment to a foreign official for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business for or with any person.
Mine Health and Safety Act (1977)
The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act amended the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, which required such regulations as two annual inspections of every surface coal mine and four at every underground coal mine in the U.S. It also increased federal enforcement power in coal mines, provided workers’ compensation for injured and disabled miners and established criminal penalties for violations of health and safety standards.
The 1977 Act governs the activities of the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration, which enforces safety and health concerns in the mining industry. Since its passage, U.S. mining fatalities dropped from 272 in 1977 to 86 in 2000.
Whistleblower Protection Act (1989)
The Whistleblower Protection Act protects federal whistleblowers, or persons who work for the government who report agency misconduct. A federal agency violates the Act if it takes or fails to take action “with respect to any employee or applicant because of any disclosure of information by the employee or applicant that he or she reasonably believes evidences a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”
In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Garcetti v. Ceballos that government employees did not have protection from retaliation by their employers under the First Amendment. In response, the House of Representatives passed the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2007, which President George W. Bush pledged to veto if Congress enacted it into law, due to “national security concerns.”