The House yesterday approved a further curtailment of the powers of the Federal Trade Commission, voting to order the agency to keep its hands off agriculture cooperatives.
By a 245 to 139 vote it adopted an amendment by Rep. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) prohibiting the FTC from enforcing the antitrust laws with respect to farm cooperatives and agricultural marketing orders.
The immediate effect would be to shelve a two-year-old FTC case against Sunkist Growers Inc., the California fruit cooperative. The FTC charges Sunkist controls 75 percent of the production and marketing of western oranges and lemons and engages in anticompetitive practices.
On Nov. 14, the House voted 223-147 to bar the FTC from regulating the funeral industry.
The House's action came on an FTC authorization bill, which already contained a provision permitting one-House vetoes of all FTC regulations. The bill was later passed, 321 to 63.
Because the House was prevented from amending the authorization beyond its votes on funeral homes and agriculture co-ops, its bill is mild compared with what the Senate Commerce Committee did last week.
The Senate committee voted unanimously to forbid the FTC's proposed investigations of the insurance industry, to halt proceedings on television advertising aimed at children and to curtail rulemaking on product standards and certification.
The committee still has before it an amendment to prohibit the agency from ordering divestiture as a remedy inthe antitrust cases, aimed at an FTC antitrust proceeding against Exxon and seven other oil companies, for which the staff recommends divestiture of refineries and pipelines.
While consumer groups have lobbied hard to protect the agency against the congressional attacks, the agency has become a scapegoat for business hostility to government regulation and the whipping boy for antiregulatory sentiment in Congress.
The National Consumer's League, Ralph Nader's Congress Watch and Common Cause lobbied against Andrews' amendment yesterday, while the National Council of Farm Cooperatives worked for it.
It if becomes law, the shelving of the Sunkist cause would be unprecedented congressional interference in an on-going law enforcement preceeding, legal experts say.
Fifteen professors from prestigious law schools, in a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), called the action "grossly inappropriate." But Sunkist also sent letters urging support of the amendment and calling the FTC action "harassment of farmers and cooperatives" and a "waste of public funds."
Andrews said farmer's co-ops have "no resources" to hire attorneys to fight suits and that co-ops were exempted from antitrust laws by the Kapper-Volstead Act.
Rep. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.) said, "The power and scope of co-ops have gone far beyond what anybody dreamed of. Today they handle $165 billion worth of transactions annually."