THE BATTLE over the future of the Federal Trade Commission now shifts to a conference committee. The Senate bill, passed Thursday, eliminated only a few of the commission's powers instead of gutting it, as had seemed likely earlier in the week. The House bill, approved last year, removed some others. With that situation, the conference committee can now, if it is so inclined, come up with a final product that puts appropriate constraints on the FTC. Or, it can combine the worst elements of both bills to beat the commission down.
The constraints have been provided by the Senate in the form of a legislative oversight device that avoids the basic flaws of the one-house and two-house veto ideas. Proposed by Sens. Carl Levin and David Boren, this device would stay the effective date of future FTC rules for up to 80 days to give Congress time to consider overriding them. The override would occur only if both houses and the president agreed to it.
This proposal simply provides a format and a time-table under which Congress could exercise power it already has. That would probably lead to closer scrutiny of rules promulgated by the FTC, but that is all right; the commission seems to need it right now. The FTC is, after all, one of the independent regulatory agencies that exercise large amounts of delegated legislative power. While the Carter administration quite reasonably fears that adoption of this proposal for one agency will be the forerunner of its adoption for all, there is no need to begin now the fight against extension of the device to rules made entirely within the executive branch.
The other things the Senate has decided to do to the FTC are not nearly so helpful. Instead of waiting to try out its new review mechanism at the end of investigations into television advertising aimed at children and into setting product standards, the Senate voted to terminate both in mid-course. While we would not defend the former, the latter investigation (which deals with the standardization of everything from nuts and bolts to nuclear reactors) could have useful results.
Of aall the special-interest groups that have been trying to edge beyond the reach of the FTC, four remain. Only the insurance industry had its way in the Senate. But the funeral homes, orange growers and manufacturers of Formica persuaded the House to give them special treatment. The best thing the conference committee can do is lose all four special-interest proposals somewhere in the recesses of the Capitol. The inclusion of this kind of special pleading in its report would only detract from the serious work that has been done to get the FTC back on a course that is in keeping with the current public mood about regulation.