Unless you have some involvement with automobiles, oil companies, doctors, lawyers, funerals, drugs, food, appliances, health spas, life insurance, mobile homes, television advertising to children, games of chance, credit, hearing aids or eyeglasses, you probably have no interest in what happens to the Federal Trade Commission in Congress today.
If, on the other hand, you are a normal, functioning human being, you probably do have at least a small interest in the future of that beleaguered regulatory agency, a large part of which may be determined in a House vote expected this afternoon.
Besides voting to reauthorize the existence of the 65-year-old agency, the House will vote on several proposals that would sharply curtail the commission's mandate and powers, including one that would allow the House to veto any FTC action before it is taken.
And the debate that has surrounded that vote -- as well as impending votes in the Senate on the same issue -- has been the clearest manifestation yet of the growing rift between the business community and the government.
When it was founded by Congress in 1914 to protect the public from unfair and deceptive practices on the part of business, the FTC was given something denied most federal regulatory agencies: freedom of choice to go after whatever problem areas it wanted to, and the ability to pick and choose those problems based on its own perceptions of consumer interests and needs.
Naturally over the decades, commissioners have differed over what was important. Some apparently thought nothing was important, and for a long time critics accused the agency of doing little or nothing at all.
But that is not the problem today. Now just every major business lobby thinks the FTC is doing too much, and has made a point of telling Congress so. Sometime today those lobbying efforts will bear fruit in the House. Within weeks the Senate will take its shots.
"What you've got is pent-up hostility to a number of years of actions, and this is the opportunity to vent it," said Jeffrey Joseph, the Chamber of Commerce's director of government and regulatory affairs. "The FTC has taken a blanket authority of power, and they have certainly pressed to the limits."
"The FTC is doing politically badly because it is doing substantively well," said Mark Green, head of Ralph Nader's Congress Watch. He said what is happening to the FTC on the Hill is a "perfect example of the loophole of the First Amendment: Everybody is allowed to solicit the government, but special interests can selectively target or defeat any public official in an agency or in Congress."
Special interests are certainly at the heart of the FTC's problems. For example, the funeral industry lobby has succeeded in getting an amendment attached to the FTC authorization that would prohibit the FTC from regulating the funeral industry. The agency happens to be on the verge of adopting a proposal to force the funeral industry to stop certain practices said to be unfair to consumers.
And, as Green points out, "Bereaved widows who are often bilked by funeral parlor owners don't have a trade lobby in Washington to push their case."
And only a deal struck among Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), the American Federation of Grain Millers and the FTC Bureau of Competition resulted in the removal of another amendment that would have prevented the FTC from proceeding against the ready-to-eat-cereal industry, something the agency already is doing. The FTC agreed to allow the grain millers to intervene in the FTC administrative process in that investigation.
Still another little-known amendment to the bill would prevent the FTC from regulating agricultural cooperatives. That amendment resulted from lobbying by Sunkist Growers Inc., target of a complaint in that FTC probe.
"I've never received so many complaints about one agency as I have about (the FTC)," said House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.) in a recent interview with Broadcasting magazine. "I think the feeling of the House is they've overextended themselves. I think they're a little ambitious -- a little overly ambitious."
Things look equally glum on the Senate side for the FTC. Sen Wendall Ford (D-Ky.), chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on consumer affairs, has scheduled a press conference for Thursday to unveil his plans for a bill to change the statutes under which the FTC operates.
"The industrywide authority they have creates problems for the FTC," Ford said in an interview. "And when they go after supposedly wrongdoers, it involves a total industry rather than a person doing something they shouldn't do."
He criticized the tactics of the agency as well. After atacking a subpoena which led Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co. to deliver 14,000 pounds of documents Ford said he also was upset over the the FTC's release to the public of a controversial Roper Poll commissioned by Brown and Williamson, that was detrimental to the cigarette industry. The poll was obtained by the FTC under a subpoena to B&W.
Ford will ask to have the FTC's subpoena powers curtailed, and new confidentiality restrictions inserted in its mandate, he said.
Subcommittee staffers say he also is considering exemptions from FTC regulation for a number of industries. The list reads like the FTC casebook: life insurance, used cars, encylopedia sales, funeral homes and television advertising aimed at children.
"The Hill has been harder on us than I, or anyone else, anticipated," said FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk, who was chief counsel of the Senate Commerce Committee before taking over the FTC two and a half years ago.
Although he inherited 14 of the 17 major investigiations active at the FTC, Pertschuk -- an outspoken consumer advocate -- had "certainly become the focal point of the industry protest," said Ford.
"I think he is hearing a few bells out there and trying to respond," said Ford.
But Pertschuk blames his problems in large part on the "organized business community," which he says "has been so much more aggressive in pursuing its interests on the Hill."
Pertschuk claims congressmen get "a one-sided, selective view of what we are doing, and we just don't have the hours of the day to have the truth catch up."
Still Pertschuk has been a strong defender of his agency at the recent barrage of FTC hearings on the Hill. "We can fight this by inviting the kind of hearings the Senate Commerce Committee has held," he said. At those hearings, Pertschuk went as far as to admit that certain FTC staffers may have had an anti-industry bias, but added that those staffers "no longer work at the agency."
Pertschuk's hearings were so informative, it seems, that he probably will get the chance to do them over and over again.
Ford is planning to introduce a plan to continue that same oversight scrutiny of the agency on an annual basis.