A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee yesterday approved a bill that would require the Federal Trade Commission to submit its new rules in advance for congressional review.
The FTC issues consumer protection rules on subjects ranging from used-car sales to funeral industry practices. Such rules are frequently controversial, and have stirred debate in Congress over whether lawmakers should restrict the FTC's rulemaking authority.
The Supreme Court in 1983 found unconstitutional laws that granted Congress the power to veto actions by the executive branch. The court said that Congress can exercise legislative authority only if both houses approve a measure and submit it to the president for his signature.
Congress in 1980 had given itself authority to veto FTC rules without the president's participation, and had used that power to veto an FTC requirement that auto dealers disclose the flaws in used cars.
The bill approved yesterday would delay implementation of new FTC rules for 90 days. If Congress took no action during that time, a rule would take effect. But Congress could veto a rule if both houses passed a resolution to do so and the president signed it.
Congress can overturn an FTC rule without an explicit veto provision by passing a law that is signed by the president, according to usual procedures.
The legislative veto approved yesterday would bring the FTC more closely under congressional scrutiny by requiring the agency to submit its rules in advance for review.
The veto provision was tacked on as an amendment to a proposed bill to authorize funds for the FTC. The agency's last authorization expired in October 1982, and the legislative veto has been among the issues preventing agreement on a new bill since then.
The other major obstacle has been the debate about the commission's jurisdiction over professions. Associations of lawyers and physicians have lobbied in the past for exemptions from FTC authority, but now are urging Congress to pass a bill without any reference to their status. The bill approved yesterday does not address the issue.
After yesterday's vote, FTC and congressional observers expressed increased optimism that a reauthorization bill would pass this year.
The legislative-veto provision, proposed by Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa), was approved on a voice vote by the subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism, and will be sent on to the full committee.
FTC Chairman James C. Miller III said he is "delighted to see reauthorization moving at last, and glad to see it moving in a vehicle very much in accord with what the president and the commission has asked for."
Miller added, however, that he would prefer a bill that "reaffirmed" the FTC's authority over the professions, "while at the same time putting some limits on the commission's authority."
Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee, said he was "pleased" by the legislative-veto amendment because it represented a compromise from a more restrictive version previously advocated by committee Republicans.
Some committee members wanted a bill that would require Congress to approve an FTC rule before it could take effect. Attempts to reauthorize the agency in the last Congress failed in part because of controversy over a similar proposal.
Florio said that the agency would pass few rules under such a requirement, and that he agreed to the compromise because "it would do the least legislative damage to the FTC's legitimate rulemaking authority."
Florio said Congress "has more than enough oversight capability" as it is, but that he accepted the legislative veto because of a "consensus" that congressional oversight authority should be strengthened.
Miller said the prospects for passing a reauthorization bill this year "are quite good."
Meanwhile, Sen. Robert W. Kasten (R-Wis.) has introduced an FTC reauthorization bill that includes no reference to a legislative veto. That bill is scheduled for consideration Thursday by the Senate Commerce, Science and Tourism Committee.