Joan Claybrook has served as Executive Director of Public Citizen, a great institution, for over 27 years. Her work, advocating for democratic principles on behalf of all public citizens and advancing democracy in the face of adversity, has been truly outstanding. Joan announced last month that she was stepping down as President of Public Citizen, effective January 31, 2009. Fortunately, she will continue to be part of Public Citizen’s future and will remain on the Board of Directors. While Public Citizen’s noble mission, which is to protect the health, safety and democracy of all Americans, will continue, Joan’s leadership will be sorely missed. She has labored diligently in support of Public Citizen’s work. During her tenure, Joan’s leadership has been tremendous and she will be very difficult to replace. When the descriptive term, “consumer advocate” was coined, the persons responsible had to have had Joan Claybrook as their role model.
In announcing her decision to step down as President, Joan quoted Louis Brandeis, who said years ago, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of President is the title of Citizen.” That was quite appropriate. While the work of Public Citizen must continue and, if anything, intensify, Public Citizen has accomplished great things during Joan’s tenure. Every consumer in America has benefited from the advocacy work of Public Citizen. Public Citizen, under Joan’s leadership, has played a significant role in Congress, in government agencies and in the courts to protect health, safety and democracy for everyone in the U.S. Over the past 27 years, Public Citizen helped pass significant laws benefiting consumers, opened access to government information, enhanced Congressional ethics and campaign reform, and has stopped some of industry’s most egregious efforts to rollback public protections. Some of the accomplishments of Public Citizen while Joan was President include:
• Airbags are now standard equipment in all motor vehicles sold in the U.S., as well as in countries all over the world. Just in the U.S., they save almost 3,000 lives a year. Additionally, the federal government is being forced by our work to issue critically important vehicle safety standards to prevent rollover, upgrade roof strength and mitigate ejection (rollover crashes kill 10,800 people a year), improve tire safety and require transparency in auto industry dealings with the regulatory agency to protect the public against safety defects.
• The expansion of dangerous triple-trailer trucks was stopped, limiting their operation to about a dozen, mostly western, states.
• Major changes in Congressional ethics and lobbying requirements were adopted in 1995 and 2007 because of Public Citizen’s intense efforts, including a gift ban, limits on use of corporate aircraft and expansive reporting requirements.
• Public Citizen helped to secure enactment of a major campaign finance reform bill that bans soft (unregulated) money that was often doled out in huge amounts to the political parties, as well as regulation of phony “issue ads” in political campaigns, and worked to assure it was found to be constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
• Legislation to tie the hands of government regulators was blocked. Public Citizen played a pivotal role in 1995 in stopping – by one vote – the Gingrich/Dole bill that would have rolled back the ability of regulators to issue health, safety and environmental standards.
• Public Citizen was instrumental in defeating efforts by the super-rich to eliminate the estate tax, which would have cost the U.S. Treasury a trillion dollars.
• Public Citizen fought for years to keep access to the courthouse door open for victims of product defects and medical malpractice by defeating, again and again, legislation to restrict damage awards.
• Public Citizen’s litigation group has brought hundreds of public interest lawsuits in federal district and courts of appeal and in the U.S. Supreme Court, including achieving a landmark victory that preserves White House electronic records and assures electronic records (not just paper records) are available under the Freedom of Information Act.
Joan Claybrook is a great person – a great American – and a great consumer advocate. She will be sorely missed at Public Citizen. I have been blessed to know Joan and to have her as my very good friend. If we all had the same dedication to our work as does Joan, and the same character that she possesses, we would have a better world.
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