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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Sen. Wendall Ford – Senate Commerce Committee

A grotesque spectacle is emerging in the U.S. Senate. It is in the form of chain-smoking Wendell H. Ford, the senator from Kentucky and the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co.

In his position as chairman of the Consumer Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Ford is supposed to be a leading defender of consumer rights. But, in fact, he has ranged mostly from apathetic to hostile. On Nov. 8, at a press conference packed with approving corporate lawyers and lobbyists, Ford declared hot war on the Federal Trade Commission–the lone agency in Washington that is trying seriously to apply some law and order to business crime, monopoly and fraud.

Ford’s legislative proposals either would destroy much of the FTC’s enforcement authority or paralyze it procedurally. He wants to end the children’s advertising rule proceeding which is exploring the commercial exploitation of young children by TV ads. It’s all right with Ford for Big Business to undermine family authority and goad 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds to nagging their parents for junk food that damages their health. As a tobacco industry minion, Ford is used to defending health-damaging products.

Here are some of Ford’s other ideas for the FTC:

–Define unlawful advertising in a way to prevent the FTC rules from requiring advertisements to be substantiated, to include material facts, and to label the country of origin.

–Prohibit the FTC from requiring used car dealers to inspect their cars and inform customers of the results.

–Eliminate an FTC proposal to diminish the costly and anti-competitive practices of industry standards-setting organizations by establishing fairer and more open procedures. Consumers, for example, pay higher electricity bills due to inflated lighting standards.

–Require the FTC to award lawyers fees to companies with a net worth of up to $5 million unless the commission’s action against them was “substantially justified.” Since monies for this Business Lawyers Relief Act would come directly from the FTC budget, the Ford proposal would drain resources away from the pursuit of corporate fraud.

–Severely restrict the FTC’s subpoena power to obtain data from companies and place what information the agency does obtain under stricter cover of secrecy.

–Expose the FTC to judicial review of the regulatory analysis made before rules are issued. Petrified wood would move faster than the FTC could under this nightmare of intermediate delays and appeals.

There are more proposals by Sen. Ford (or his tutor, Ernie Pepples of Brown and Williamson) which would strengthen the robbers’ power to chase the cops. Apparently, Ford believes they all are so self-evident that they do not require legislative hearings by his subcommittee. As it is, the current proposal would eliminate or restrict more than half of the 16 pending FTC rules.

In September and October, he held eight days of largely stacked oversight hearings on the FTC. What’s more, he is determined to hold FTC oversight hearings every six months. But for the most far-reaching changes proposed in the FTC’s history, the senator wants to push them to the Senate floor without giving consumer groups and honest businesspeople the chance to testify on these new and unexplored proposals.

All this should not surprise anyone who has studied the record of Sen. Ford. He registers less than 30 percent on the Consumer Federation of America’s Consumer Voting Index. He voted for higher natural gas prices and against hospital cost-containment legislation. He supported Sen. Robert Byrd’s successful weakening of the bumper protection standard. If this bill becomes law, it will cost consumers tens of millions of dollars in higher annual repair bills.

But then Wendell Ford owes one to Sen. Byrd who gave him a second two-year post as chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. According to the Almanac of American Politics, Byrd acted on the basis that Ford “has a special ability to get contributions from business-oriented groups and individuals.”

The early 20th-century appeal of Sen. Boies Penrose comes to mind. The powerful Pennsylvanian candidly explained his philosophy to a group of businessmen: “I believe in a division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under…which you make money…and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign fund to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.”

Wendell Ford is a modern exhibitor of the Penrose maxim. Never mind the corporate crime epidemic. Never mind the fleecing of the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the middle-class families by the rampant business fraud, deception and price-rigging. Never mind the abundant evidence which the FTC has rigorously gathered to support its actions. These don’t matter to Wendell Ford. It’s a campaign year for him and his fellow Democrats. It’s a time for banking the campaign cash and carrying the legislative water for the rich and powerful.

If he had any sense of shame, not to mention his conflict of interest, he would resign his chairmanship of the Consumer Subcommittee and end at least one cruel and deceptive practice.