Charlie Cook’s Politics 101 – National Consumers League

by Sally Greenberg

On a Tuesday morning right before the Christmas break, I sat mesmerized at a breakfast held at one of Washington’s toniest hotels as the leading guru of political prognostication, Charlie Cook, spun his tale of politics 101. Cook, a native Louisianan, has made his name in Washington as the go-to guy for playing the odds on Presidential politics, U.S. Senate, House and state races. Cook’s considered by many as the best there is for political predictions.

Among his “bon mots” from last year’s breakfast – I wasn’t there but my table mates recounted it – Cook told the audience that Rudy Guliani has “as much chance of winning the Republican nomination as I have of winning the Tour de France.” In order to appreciate that comment, you have to see the man- he’s, well, chubby, very chubby. He probably wouldn’t make it more than a kilometer or two on the straightaway, let alone into the Alps.

Cook’s reasoning? In order to win the republican nomination you have to be at least two of these three: anti-abortion (Guiliani’s pro-choice); anti-gun control (Guiliani’s pro-control, at least he was as mayor of New York City); and anti-gay rights (Guiliani backs civil unions and was considered very gay-friendly while mayor of NYC).

So who does Cook think has the best chance of winning the Republican nomination? He’s giving the odds to Mitt Romney, Massachusetts’ former governor. What about the Huckabee surge ? Cook says he has no money and no organization. And Fred Thompson –“they use the term ‘running’ for a reason. He’s not running, he’s sauntering.” As for Senator John McCain, he doesn’t have any money left either – he blew through a lot of his campaign war chest early on – and he’s made serious tactical mistakes, like backing a compromise on immigration that is inimical to the beliefs of his republican base. Cook doesn’t think McCain can do it.

On the democratic side, Cook says that if Hillary Clinton loses Iowa – the candidates are neck-and-neck there – and New Hampshire, she’s dead. If Obama wins one of these two and Clinton the other, Cooks says it’s a horserace. Cook told the audience that the democrats have a 60-40 chance of winning, but neither “Clinton nor Obama wins big.”

If dems could run a “placebo – you know, your generic boring white male ticket, say former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh – that might guarantee them the top elected official slot.” But, as Cook noted, that’s not happening this year. So, if Cook is right, we’re looking at a Clinton-Romney race come spring, when all the dust has settled and the presidential race at full tilt. If not, well, Cook won’t be the first Washington pundit to get it wrong, but he’ll always be one of the most entertaining.

Jolly Holiday Returns – National Consumers League

As surely as people buy holiday gifts, they also return holiday gifts. Returning merchandise successfully — and getting a refund you’re satisfied with — can pose a few challenges any time of year, but there are a number of things consumers can do before the return, or even before the purchase, to reduce stress, ease the process, and increase the odds of a successful transaction. Check out our tips for jolly holiday returns.

Kids and Cars Bill Will Protect Young Children From Being Backed Over and Killed – National Consumers League

by Sally Greenberg, Executive Director

For years, safety advocates have been working to protect young children from being killed behind vehicles driving in reverse because the driver can’t adequately see the space behind the cars they are backing up. Late this afternoon, a bill to address this deadly hazard – which routinely kills two children a week, according to the group KIDS AND CARS – overcame a major hurdle, passing the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously. The Senate Commerce Committee passed a similar measure several months ago.

The biggest danger comes with the very largest of vehicles: SUVs and pickup trucks. While every car has a blind zone, the larger vehicles tend to have much wider and longer ones. Consumer Reports, where I worked for a decade and lobbied to get this bill passed before coming to the National Consumers League, measures all blind areas behind every vehicle they test. CR has measured blind zones as long as 69 feet, longer than many driveways. This means that, when a driver is sitting in the car about to put it in reverse, she can’t see anything behind her for 69 feet and as much as 7 feet wide. Clearly an accident waiting to happen. Small children run out after Mommy or Daddy, Grandpa or Grandma, without being seen and end up behind the car, in a blind spot. You know the rest. The tragedy is devastating: often the parent is the one who backs over the child, and it often happens in their own driveway.

The bill passed in the House Committee today – sponsored by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Congressman Peter King (R-NY), (the bill bears the name of his young constituent, Cameron Gulbransen, a victim of backover). Like its Senate counterpart, sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senator John Sununu (R-NH), the bill will require that every vehicle meet a standard for rear visibility in the next few years allowing drivers to detect objects behind them, that every vehicle require that its brake be depressed if it is to shift into gear, preventing young children from playing with a gear shift and setting a car in motion (because they can’t reach the brake pedal, typically), and calling for data collection by the federal government for these types of nontraffic, noncrash incidents, which are not systematically tracked now by the government.

FDA Says No Thanks to OTC Statin – National Consumers League

By NCL Staff

At a public hearing last week, the Food and Drug Administration heard a variety of opinions about the possibility of a cholesterol-lowering prescription drug being made available in an over-the-counter, non-prescription form. After the hearing, the agency held a vote, and the verdict is in: Mevacor will not become an OTC drug, and consumers will continue to have to go to their doctors for diagnosing and treatment of cholesterol – at least for now.

Over the years, the FDA has granted OTC status to other Rx drugs, like medications for heartburn, yeast infections, and other conditions consumers can self-treat. The FDA weighs the pros and cons, including risks of side effects, consumers’ ability to self-diagnose and monitor, and other safety issues. We wanted to know what consumers would think of an OTC statin, so we surveyed adults with moderately-risky cholesterol levels to find out. We told FDA committee members at the public hearing last week that the consumers surveyed had mixed opinions. Many said they’d be interested in the OTC version, but some others thought that they’d prefer to have a doctor’s prescription to treat their cholesterol. Turns out, as we expected, that OTC drugs are seen as safer and Rx drugs are seen as more trustworthy. Interesting stuff!

Now that the FDA has made its ruling, consumers who want to treat their cholesterol without having to go to the doctor first will just have to wait. There’s definitely a plus side to this ruling: FDA advisers noted that at $1 to $1.50 a day, an over-the-counter version would cost more for the insured than the typical $4 to $15 for a month’s supply of prescription statins.

Federal Reserve Chair Gives Shout-out to LifeSmarts – National Consumers League

by NCL staff

We just found out that, in a Nov. 29 speech given at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke, gave a shout-out to LifeSmarts! He was praising the Charlotte Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond for its local efforts to advance financial literacy, and he included our LifeSmarts program in a list of partnerships the Branch has engaged.

You go, LifeSmarts! Read the speech!

Charity Scams Tugging at Our Heartstrings – and Wallets – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, Executive Director

It’s that time of year again, when you can’t hit the mall without running into at least one bell-ringer bundled up in the cold outside a storefront, seeking donations from consumers. It’s nice to know that Americans are such a charitable bunch. According to an MSNBC story by our friend Herb Weisbaum, we are expected to donate about $300 billion to charity this year, half of which will be contributed between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Isn’t that wonderful?

It’s a great time of year to donate. One NCL staffer has found a local DC charity that needs donations of toys for kids this month that we all plan to give to. (Lead-free ones, of course.) But consumers do need to be careful, especially right now, about the possibility that a charitable solicitation may be fraudulent. This time of year, when both legitimate and fraudulent charities will try to tug at our heartstrings, we need to remember to watch for some warning signs like high-pressure tactics or the “charity” not being registered. The Better Business Bureau has a Wise Giving Alliance that can help you identify a good charity, and the National Center for Responsible Philanthropy helps keep charities accountable about what portion of their funding goes to the services they provide.

Wake up, Congress! Wal-Mart Pressure on Chinese Suppliers Making Toys Less Safe – National Consumers League

by National Consumers League staff

It turns out that more than 70 percent of the merchandise on Wal-Mart’s shelves come from China. If Wal-Mart were a country, the retail giant would be China’s sixth largest trading partner. That’s ahead of Germany and England.

This is particularly interesting — and particularly during this time of year — because it also controls about a-third of America’s toy market, making it the number one seller of toys in the United States. It’s even bigger than stores that specialize in the sale of toys. We learned recently that Wal-Mart is the #1 customer for each of the four companies that have issued major toy recalls in 2007. These four companies — Mattel, Hasbro, RC2 Corporation, and Graco – have recalled a combined 13 million toys in the past 10 months.

During the holiday shopping season, this toy safety fiasco is scarier than ever for millions of parents in the United States who may be worried about the toys their children are going to receive as gifts in the coming weeks.

We think it’s intense pressure from toy retailers like Wal-Mart to continually shave costs on the manufacturing side that may have contributed to the diminished quality and safety of the toys that American consumers buy. We want Congress to take a closer look at this issue and consider what can be done to protect consumers, especially children, from the consequences of this relentless pressure on toy manufacturers.

We signed on to a letter that was sent today by and Wal-Mart Watch, joining other leading consumer and environmental groups, to North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, who chairs the Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce, Trade & Tourism, asking him to call for hearings on Wal-Mart’s pressure on Chinese suppliers.