Over at the Federal Trade Commission, Chairman Michael Pertschuk has begun holding 5 p.m. meetings with top staff to discuss what Congress has done to his agency that day.
When FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection chief Albert Kramer was leaving his office for one of those meetings recently, someone in his office stuck out his head and asked Kramer where he was off to.
"The 5 o'clock meeting," Kramer said.
"Oh, off to the bunkers?" cracked the subordinate.
It is that kind of gallows humor that FTC staffers have embraced in recent weeks, in part because the tremendous beating the commission is taking on Capitol Hill essentially is out of their control.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit the FTC from enforcing antitrust laws dealing with farm cooperatives and agricultural marketing orders, a measure designed solely to kill a specific investigation into the practices of Sunkist Growers Inc., a California fruit cooperative. iThe House already had voted to kill FTC regulation of the funeral industry.
And things look even worse in the Senate, where the Commerce Committee has recommended halting several more FTC investigations into such things as children's television advertising, used cars, private industry standard-setting and insurance industry practices. mission's investigations are threatened in a major way by pending congressional action, and all are affected by certain across-the-board proposals that would limit investigative and sub-poena authority.
The antiregulatory tide sweeping Capitol Hill has reached tidal wave proportions when dealing with the FTC, which, because of its broad mandate, has its regulatory hands in dozens of industries. One by one, powerful industry lobbyists have managed to convince senators and congressmen that the FTC has exceeded its authority in its investigation of their specific industries.
The effect such activity has had on the staff of the FTC is predictable.
"It's frustrating," said one staffer, who is working on one of the illfated investigations, and like most interviewed asked that his name not be used. "The principal problem is the inability to let Congress know what we are doing. (By law, FTC and other regulatory agency employes are not allowed to lobby on Capitol Hill.)
"There is so much misinformation about what the commission is doing floating around the Hill, it's incredible," he said. "The lobbyists are out in force, telling their side of the story, and we have to sit by and watch them whittle our powers away."
"If they end this investigation, I am going to think seriously about leaving," said another staffer on one of the probes in jeopardy "I think you'll see an exodus of people who finally get frustrated with having things like this pulled out from under them, especially when they thought they were right and knew they would win in court."
There has been some speculation that ongoing cases already have been hurt by the congressional brouhaha.
"Psychologically," one attorney said, "this has got to have an impact on our preparation of cases and on witnesses wh were going to testify. Someone takes a risk in testifying against a company in a monopolization case, for example, only to find that Congres has ended the investigation and, essentiially, condoned the alleged monopolistic practice."
David Laufer, an eight-year veteran of the commission, has spent the past two years working on an antitrust case involving agricultural cooperatives. That case already has gone to the federal courts, and the FTC has even won the first round in District Court. But yesterday the House of Representatives voted to kill that investigation.
"I would be extremely disappointed if Congress passes a law to deal with a case pending in litigation," Laufer said. "That would be extremely short-sighted, since such a case is already in a forum where a fair hearing is being presented."
Still, it is clear the congressional steamroller will flatten a few FTC investigations, and the FTC's planning and management functions have come to a virtual halt until Congress decides finally on which probes to stop.
"It has given meaning to that ancient Chinese curse," FTC spokesman Ira Furman said. "May you live in interesting times."