Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) yesterday proposed legislation to cut drastically the time it takes to try major antitrust cases. Kennedy is chairman of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.

He cited the government case against International Business Machines Corp. as an example of judical foot-dragging, pointing out that the IBM investigation began in 1966 and a "final decision by 1984 may even be optimistic."

In a speech to the Computer and Communications Industry Association, Kennedy said, "It doesn't take much antitrust sense - just common sense - to see that there is something wrong with antitrust enforcement when major cases take decades to complete. Most IBM executives responsible for policies challenged by the government are now retired or deceased."

"Trial of an antitrust suit of this magnitude is much like conducting a war," said Kennedy. "Our oversight hearings revealed that the Antitrust Division's supply lines are stretched thin, their equipment is antiquated, and their command posts are never in the same place nor manned by the same people."

Kennedy did have praise for Attorney General Bell and his top assistant for antitrust, John Shenefield, for their pledges to reduce the red tape in big antitrust cases, saying they "have stated their unwavering dedication to bringing the IBM case under control."

But he called for "a variety of procedural reforms - some legislative in nature" - to bring antitrust litigation under control."

He also called for legislation aimed not only at mergers within one industry, but designed to prevent "mergers that result in the increasing dominance of the entire economy by a few giant conglomerates."

"Legislation which prevents the gobbling up of independent businesses by increasingly large and aggressive conglomerates should be a matter of high antitrust priority," Kennedy said.

He also called for legislation that "makes clear that the Sherman Act does not require the elaborate search for corporate intent that mires so many antitrust suits in a decade-long search for why something was done instead of the far easier and more important fact of what was done."

Kennedy hailed the Competition Improvement Act, which he also reintroduced before the Senate yesterday. That act calls on federal regulatory agencies to make sure their actions do not exceed their statutory responsibilities, and to make sure that the advantages of regulatory action by federal agencies outweigh possible anticompetitive effects.