A Bush FTC

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President-elect George W. Bush will inherit from outgoing Chairman Robert Pitofsky a Federal Trade Commission that fits his basic wants: diligent, moderate and with generally good relations with business and Capitol Hill. The trick will be to keep it that way.

The new chief of the FTC must retain the confidence of both business and consumerists that there is a cop on the beat who's willing, where necessary, to enforce standards of honest dealing between advertisers and the public-but is wary of unnecessary marketplace interventions by government. The chief must have the wisdom, as Chairman Pitofsky has displayed, to champion the ad industry's longstanding efforts to solve its own problems through self-regulation. President Bush's FTC and the ad industry's National Advertising Review Council can and should be natural partners in maintaining high standards for national advertising.

The last 30 years at the FTC are lessons of the consequences of straying from this approach. After one of President Richard Nixon's FTC chairmen, Miles Kirkpatrick, oversaw a badly needed modernization of FTC's approach to ad regulation, President Carter's FTC embraced confrontation with advertisers as its strategy. Proposals such as a ban on TV advertising to children poisoned FTC relations with business and with many in Congress, igniting a business-led counterattack on the commission. Turmoil continued when President Reagan's FTC appeared to threaten, in the name of deregulation, basic notions of what constituted deception.

In the calmer 1990s, advertisers have found an FTC less eager to impose government solutions and more willing to encourage self-regulation, wherever business shows the willingness to make it work. Neither business nor consumerists are totally satisfied with the Pitofsky FTC. That's a good balance for the coming Bush FTC to shoot for.

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