WASHINGTON - With a congressional battle looming this fall over stopping unwanted commercial e-mail, many lawmakers expected help from Timothy Muris, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.
After all, Muris was cheered as a champion of consumer privacy when he pushed through the creation of a federal "do not call" registry, which will put about 42 million phone numbers off limits to telemarketers starting Oct. 1.
But Muris disappointed some lawmakers with a speech this month in which he said a similar "do not spam" registry and other proposed legislative remedies would do more harm than good.
For Muris, it was just one more twist in a career that has made him one of the least predictable - and most effective - regulators in the federal government.
As director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection and its Bureau of Competition during the Reagan administration, Muris had urged Congress to cut the agency's powers.
So when he took office in June 2001, many consumer advocates had expected him to dismantle consumer protections. Instead, he has emerged as one of the most popular regulators appointed by President Bush.
Mark Cooper, research director of Consumer Federation of America, praises Muris as "a fair and open regulator ... [who] seems willing to listen to both sides, even when he is likely to disagree."
As FTC chairman, Muris has been spurring the agency to greater action. For example, it spent a year preparing the do-not-call registry, which became an instant hit when it opened June 27.
But the registry might not have come together if Muris had not fought for its funding. Although maintenance of the registry will be covered by fees imposed on telemarketers, the agency needed $16 million to get it up and running. Telemarketers did not want Congress to provide that money.
In February, as the House and Senate were putting finishing touches on an appropriations bill, industry lobbyists tried to get the funding delayed for at least another year. Muris sought out lawmakers to plead for the do-not-call list, and won.
Muris also has:
Been active on a range of consumer protection issues. He has chided funeral directors for blocking online casket sales, reduced attorneys' fees in class action lawsuits, told lawyers they aren't necessary for closing real-estate transactions and forced Microsoft Corp. to drop plans to collect consumer data with its software.
Been aggressive on the medical front. He has filed lawsuits against drug makers for cutting friendly deals with competitors and is trying to boost competition by examining hospital mergers and probing possible price fixing by doctors' groups.
Been vigorous in prosecuting identity-theft and fraud cases. In May, the FTC, along with other state and federal regulatory and law enforcement groups, conducted a sweep that brought 45 criminal and civil law enforcement lawsuits against Internet scams and won preliminary injunctions that shut down fraudulent operations.
"He has shown a willingness to tackle important consumer protection issues in a serious way," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a watchdog group.
At the same time, Muris has made himself popular with conservatives by focusing on enforcing laws, not pushing for an expansion of government, said Orson Swindle, a Republican member of the FTC.
"Tim Muris is a conservative in heart and spirit and intellect," Swindle said. "But he is doing the job he is required to do - enforcing the law. And I don't know any conservatives who don't believe in enforcing the law."
Muris, 53, said in a recent interview that he has not changed as much as government policy has changed. For example, Muris and his fellow conservatives believed during the Reagan years that antitrust laws were too often being used to break up companies simply because they were large.
Today, enforcement officers use sharper economic analysis to zero in on mergers that stifle competition.
"Twenty years ago, there was a lot of controversy" about what harmed consumers, Muris said. "Now there is a real bipartisan vision of what the FTC should do."
That vision focuses on fostering competition and catching cheaters, he said.
"People at the FTC think that the market and competition are the best forms of protecting consumers, but that we need rules of the game," Muris said. "So the FTC helps provide and enforce the rules of the game."
Muris said one of his chief concerns is protecting consumers' privacy.
"People are concerned about privacy because of the harms that could result from the misuse of personal information," he said. "Those harms could run all the way from physical harms, like people could be stalked, to economic harms, like identity theft, or it could just be annoyance, like calls or spam."
To fight harm being done by spam, he wants Congress to boost criminal penalties so that he can inflict harsh punishments on those who misuse the Internet.
A spam registry would be worse than useless, Muris says, because unscrupulous spammers would abuse it. Rather than check the registry to cross off e-mail addresses, he says, spammers would exploit it to gather yet more addresses.
"Most spam is already so clearly illegitimate that the senders are no more likely to comply with new regulations than with the laws they now ignore," he said Aug. 19 at the Aspen Summit, a technology conference sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
"There is not much we can do to stop the spam problem, but we could help at the margins" by making examples of con artists operating in cyberspace, he said.
Whatever course the FTC sets for cracking down on spam, Muris said, he believes it will be supported by all commissioners.
Education: San Diego State University, B.A., 1971; UCLA, law degree, 1974.
Career: Federal Trade Commission positions 1974-1976, 1981-1985, chairman 2001-current. Executive associate director of White House Office of Management and Budget, 1985-1988.
Publications: Books and articles about antitrust law, consumer protection, contract law, the federal budget and government regulation.
Personal: Twice married, has three children. A Civil War buff, he is an expert on the battles of Manassas.
Source: Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group.