Frederal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk and Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), a vocal critic of many of the agency's initiatives, brought one of Washington's fierest debates to the shores of the Mississippi River this week, and in many ways the "Show-Me" state lived up to its nickname.
Perhaps the loudest message Pertschuk heard in a series of meetings with business leaders and consumer activists is that the agency's problems aren't limited to whining Washington lobbyists and the continuing debatee about the FTC's powers in the halls of Congress. The FTC, at least as perceived by the business executives recuited by Danforth to attend the sessions, is in many ways a living example of the sour relationship between business and government.
Not that Danforth's introductions of Pertschuk at the stops along the way left any doubt about the tone the meetings would take. In two get-togethers with local business people here, Danforth knew, as he put it, that he would be accused of "serving up raw meat to the wolves." Danforth called the sessions "your chance to tell Washington what's wrong with Washington."
At another point, Danforth reminded listeners that Pertschuk has the "reputation of being the quintessence of evil . . . a cause celebre . . . . There is no more controversial figure in Washington than Michael Pertschuk and no more controversial agency, with the possible exception of the Department of Energy, than the Federal Trade Commission."
One St. Louis businessman listened for more than an hour to FTC critics and to another businessman who attacked FTC staff handling of a merger case. Then he summed up what, at least symbolically, might be the FTC's biggest difficulty in an era when government is anything but trusted:
"What really comes out of this thing is that American business is on the defensive," Bud Berman said. "If we don't get our act together, this country can't compete with the world.
"This sounds like a corporation with a legal department, a finance department, an administrative department and to hell with sales. That is what's wrong with America. We're not taking the initiative."
Pertschuk knows the depth of the agency's problem with business. He likes to tell the story about the sympathetic friend he bumped into at one point during the commission's recent storms. The friend quite simply told the beleaguered FTC chairman to keep in mind a statement by a well-known world figure: "Many enemies, much honor."
The source of the statement, Pertschuk was told, was Benito Mussolini.
Although Pertschuk tells the story to groups every so often, it had a special significance this week as Pertschuk spent a whirlwhind day here trying to convince generally conservative business leaders that he is no worse than an honorable enemy.
Whether the Danforth-sponsored visit succeeded on Pertschuk's terms is another question. For the overwhelming conclusion one draws from listening to business executives complain to Pertschuk about his agency is that the corporate bitterness toward the commission continues and that, even by Pertschuk's own admission, the perception is not without considerable merit.
The statement by travel industry official Henry Stolar at a breakfast session with Pertschuk and Danforth was just one striking example. Stolar described the beginnings of a now defunct FTC investigation of his industry a couple of years back by the FTC's regional office. He complained about the handling of the probe by "lawyers with an average age of 27 or 28 with very, very little experience either in the law or in the commission and certainly none in business."
He told of bitter meetings with FTC staff members over the issues and an "incredibly broad subpoena" issued by the regional office. "It could have shut down our company and other firms by forcing us to assemble boxcars of documents," Stolar told Pertschuk, complaining that the commission "ought to be more sensitive."
Pertschuk, clearly on the definsive, said Stolar was "absolutely right" and called the probe " one of the worst-handled investigations I have ever seen. We voted to kill it, close it, shut it down."
Others echoed the complaint, not focusing as much on FTC policy but on the bitterness and tension that characterize the working relationships between business and the aggressive FTC staff. Take another businessman's complaint about efforts to talk to the FTC staff about the details of a takeover his company wanted to carry out.
"We were lectured by the FTC staff on the power of the commission to do something about it," said Bob Gould of National Graphics. Gould said he left that meeting with "total trepidation" and called the session "a show of power rather than a perceptive discussion on the economic and legal issues."
Pertschuk had no choice but to admit to the FTC's public relations problem. "We do have a problem with the staff," Pertschuk said, also noting that changes in internal management procedures probably have alleviated much of the business concerns. "As a matter of basic fairness, when they deal with the public they carry the power of the federal government, and that's not power to be abused."
Pertschuk repeatedly acknowledged the agency's mistakes but tells audiences that things have changed -- partially because Congress, in passing the agency's authorizatioon bill last spring, limited its authority in the so-called "kit-vid" proceeding, ended the FTC role in investigating the insurance industry and in filing petitions on trademarks and in general sounded a clear warning that the FTC ought to keep Congress in mind in just about whatever it does.
"The commission is now viewed as stodgy" by the aggressive staff, he told one questioner. "I have a lot of sympathy for the funeral industry," he later told one representative of a funeral home. Next month the FTC will issue its final proposal for the long and bitter fight to write a rule governing funeral cost disclosure practices.
At another point, Pertschuk, who as a Senate staff member was credited with a major role in the enactment of much of the consumer legislation of the past 15 years, admitted that he and others shared a "relatively naive view of the role regulation plays in solving problems . . . . A lot has been learned about the limits of regulation over the last decade."
Danforth, whose role in the fierce congressional debate last fall over the future of the FTC has drawn stinging criticism from consumer group leaders in Missouri, could only smile for most of these sessions, because the meeting set up by his staff in St. Louis clearly and openly had the business view in mind.
The setting took on that flavor for several reasons. First of all, Danforth noted that he hears about the FTC on almost each trip back home. He said he hears the complaints from auto dealers, lawyers, doctors and others. "Do something to get the FTC off our backs," Danforth said they tell him.
And Danforth -- as ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce consumer subcommitee, the panel that oversees the FTC, and as Republican floor manager of the FTC's hotly debated and dismembering authorization bill -- did a bit of that himself, leading the charge that deflated if not destroyed the FTC's investigation of advertising aimed at children and totally removed the FTC from studying the nation's insurance industry.
For that work, the defenders of the FTC that were asked to attend a separate meeting, representatives of the Missouri Public Interest Group (MoPirg) and Congress Watch, groups affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, blasted Danforth at every opportunity. Those attacks came despite the fact that Pertschuk put out a letter saying that Danforth "had made numerous efforts to cure the most severe defects in the two bills in conference and reach a compromise that leaves the commission intact."
"Evidently," wrote Tom Ryan, co-director of MoPirg, "Michael Pertschuk felt compelled to ignor the harm that Senator Danforth has done for consumer interests and praise him for not siding with those members of Congress who have been intent on totally crippling the FTC. But being less of a bad guy does not make one a good guy."
At each stop of the four stops on the tour, the two men emphasized their disagreements and mutual respect and their agreements that such face-to-face encounters can only help the FTC.
Nevertheless, a weary Pertschuk, in his first appearance after four weeks in the hills of Connecticut, said at the end of the long day that he had "probably not" changed any minds. "It's always better when they see you're a human being," he added. "But the depth of feeling that they've been persecuted is a real phenomenon."