Don't exempt the 'privileged class'

Even Federal Trade Commission Chairman James Miller III -- a conservative who has led the fight for a smaller, less activist FTC -- expressed dismay at how far a Senate committee went this week in reducing the agency's clout. The Senate Commerce Committee exempted professionals - doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, etc. -- from scrutiny by the FTC. And that, argues Mr. Miller, is bad economics and bad politics because ''it sets aside the privileged class in this country . . . from laws and enforcement efforts that govern everyone else's behavior.''

Mr. Miller is right. What the committee action would mean is that the FTC would be barred from investigating or charging professionals who may be engaged in, among other things, deceptive trade methods, price-fixing, or creating trade codes that deliberately restrict competition. And the professionals who would be so excluded are persons who not only have tremendous political influence and ready access to large amounts of campaign funds but who deal almost daily with a significant percentage of the US population.

Fortunately, both the full Senate and House have yet to act on the proposal. Such an egregious blanket exemption for one entire class of persons in US society -- while others, such as corporate business executives and wage earners, are not similarly exempted -- should be quickly rejected. The issue, after all, is not to so overregulate professionals as to inhibit their performance. Rather, the FTC would seem to have an obligation to investigate and thwart clearly unreasonable trade abuses by professionals -- abuses that not only injure the general public but also work against honest persons operating in the same professions.

One final point of note: the Commerce Committee also voted to take away the FTC's authority to ban advertisements that are only ''unfair'' but not necessarily deceptive. It is interesting that the cigarette industry lobbied particularly intensively for that particular exclusion. Some FTC lawyers believe that such an exemption could take away the agency's authority over cigarette warning labels. The ''unfair'' advertising exclusion, like the exclusion on regulating professionals, is dubious legislation that should be forthrightly scrapped by Congress as a whole.

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