An all-American economic army has turned its guns on Congress as part of its war on the Federal Trade Commission.
It is an impressive force: candy makers, cereal companies, grocers and supermarket chains, toy firms, broadcasters and advertising agencies, used car dealers, food processors, undertakers and others with fire in their eyes for the FTC.
Their lobbying effort so far this year has succeeded in blocking final congressional action on legislation that authorizes the FTC to operate for three more years.
Led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they are now zeroing in on the Senate, where an authorization bill is being held hostage by Republicans who want to curb the FTC's regulatory powers.
Their way of doing that is through a "lesgilative veto" they want in the bill - a provision that would allow the House or Senate to overrule any FTC action it disagreed with.
That issue prevented passage last year of a similar FTC authorization bill. The House agreed to the legislative veto but the Senate wouldn't accept it and the bill died. The agency's activities have been conducted under a continuing resolution, a kind of temporary authorization.
The FTC battle is part of a larger fight in Congress over legislation to give the House or Senate veto power over all federal regulators.
But this time around, major economic forces, sensing growing congressional uneasiness with regulatory agencies, smell victory and are moving in for the kill on the FTC issue.
The new spur was the FTC decision earlier this year to move ahead with proposals that might lead to a ban on some advertising and put sharp limits on other types of child-oriented television food ads.
Broadcasters, ad agencies, the cereal, food, candy and toy industries that could be affected most directly by such rules sounded a bugle call that set the larger army marching.
Their ire was stimulated by an increasingly activist FTC and its outspoken chairman, Michael Pertschuk, whose pro-consumer activism offends corporate executives.
"We've had a loose coalition of food and candy and broadcasters involved, but it includes other strange bedfellows - the funeral industry, used car dealers," said Thomas H. Boggs Jr., a Washington attorney working with the protesters. "We felt the FTC was using its deceptive advertising powers way beyond what Congress intended."
Quick to join the ranks were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Association of Manufacturers, with the chamber taking over as field marshal.
"We see the legislative veto as a big stick that Congress would have over the regulators - to make them back up and justify their work product," said Jeff Joseph of the U.S. chamber.
"The FTC has something like 700 lawyers and 80 economists # sitting around thinking about what's unfair in life, without having to consider the impact of their regulations," Joseph said.
Added Jim May of the grocery manufacturers: "There is a broad-based concern with FTC activities. We want to give Congress an opportunity to review what the FTC does. Our companies are forced to spend millions of dollars to defend themselves on ill-conceived FTC rulings."
Although seemingly outgunned, consumer and public advocacy organizations are fighting back. Said Sharon Nelson of Consumers Union:
"We think their rhetoric is preposterous. They are having an incredible overreaction and are using any vehicle they can to make thir point: It shows how times have changed - the current Congress reflects confusion about what people want and a lack of leadership."
The tangle shapes up this way: An FTC authorization, containing a legislative veto, has passed the House Commerce Committee but is being stalled by the House leadership at the Rules Committee.
A Senate version of the FTC bill has been passed by the Commerce Committee, without a legislative veto, but has been blocked from the floor for weeks.
Two principals in the Senate battle are Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), chairman of the subcommittee that handled the bill, and Harrison Schmitt (R-N.M.), prime sponsor of a veto amendment.
Schmitt and conservative allies have put a "hold" on the bill to prevent it from going to the floor. Ford, unable to get a time limit agreement on debate, has declined to call the bill to the floor for fear of a filibuster, even though he has enough votes to defeat the Schmitt amendment.
"The legislative veto would act as a restraint on an agency - and the FTC is a good place to begin because it is acting as a law-making body. I am working on the aspect of a very vague law over which Congress has little control," Schmitt said.
The sparring intensified when veto supporters said they would agree to a time limit after the FTC oversight hearings that Ford had scheduled for next month. Ford promptly cancelled the hearings.
"If they want to play this kind of game, I can play it too," Ford said. "We have a good system of government and we have an ability to correct regulatory problems through the congressional oversight process. If the agencies have to submit all their regulations to us, as some people want, it shoots holes in our system."
Ford has not been identified as a particular friend of the FTC. But the debate over the larger issue of legislative vetoes has put him in the position of being an FTC defender for the time being.
"What this kind of legislation does is put the special interests directly into the office of a member of Congress when they don't get what they want out of a regulatory agency," he said. "We don't need that."