THOSE MEMBERS of Congress who are intent upon savaging the Federal Trade Commission are sending a dangerous message to the federal bureaucracy. It is not, as they seem to think it is, a warning against excessive regulation of business.It is a warning against serious regulation.

In the long run, that distinction can be vital to the business world. It is overregulation, with its mountains of meaningless paper work, that adds unnecessary burdens (and costs) to businesses, both large and small. Yet the attack on the FTC is not aimed at that kind of regulation at all. It is aimed at substantive and, in many cases, useful regulation. The message thus being delivered to the scores of other federal agencies is that survival without congressional harassment is more likely if they regulate trivia than if they try to regulate things that matter. l

Of course, any federal regulation is likely to seem excessive and unnecessary to those it affects. Used car dealers and funeral directors -- to name two groups that are well on their way to winning congressional approval to ignore the FTC -- no doubt feel justice is being done them. But the same regulation -- of the condition of used cars and of open pricing policies -- is not likely to seem so excessive to buyers of cars and funerals. Nor does it add meaningless paper work to the load that small businesses bear.

As long as the FTC ignored those businesses, and many others, Congress left it alone. Even in those days, not so long ago, when the agency was doing almost anything but generating paper work, its annual appropriations survived intact. But once the FTC rediscovered the missions those who created it had in mind, it suddenly became the villain.

The gutting of the FTC -- and that is what is under way on Capitol Hill -- is likely to be long remembered in this town. It is a message to dozens of other regulatory bodies not to take their legislative charters too seriously and, above all, not to try to regulate effectively. What a message for Congress to send in the name of regulatory reform.