Editorial: FTC should review deals

Apr 1, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The Bush administration made a mistake when it changed the way media mergers and other corporate deals are reviewed by the government.
Under the new policy, which federal regulators pushed through last month without consulting Congress, the Department of Justice takes over review of media mergers from the Federal Trade Commission. The two agencies have traditionally shared oversight.
Eliminating the FTC from the review process is a bad idea, and the policy should be reversed.
The back-door maneuver infuriated consumer groups and some members of Congress, notably Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Hollings and others object not only to what they characterize as a White House attempt to sneak an important policy shift past the American people, but also to what they fear will be the outcome of that shift: more rapid media consolidation at a time when consolidation is already racing ahead like a runaway train.
We agree with Sen. Hollings and the other critics of the plan, who point out that the FTC has valuable experience reviewing media mergers and that its traditional focus on consumer interests is something the Justice Department, which examines mainly antitrust issues and other legal ramifications, can’t match.
FTC Chairman Tim Muris, a Republican, has defended the move as a way of streamlining the review process-as though everyone should agree that’s a good thing. But even two members of his own panel, Democrats Mozelle Thompson and Sheila Anthony, have publicly objected to the move.
The FTC appeared to back down last week in response to pressure from Sen. Hollings, saying it will try to address the concerns of Congress. Still, it’s more than a little troubling to see a regulatory agency so eager to give up power, a gesture that calls into question whether the White House and its appointees are truly interested in acting in the public interest.
The ball is in Sen. Hollings’ court now, and he remains a significant hurdle to the plan’s implementation. He is conducting a formal review of the plan and has hinted strongly that he may hold hearings on the matter.
If hearings are the best way to ensure that regulators do their jobs, he should go ahead with them. And if they prove embarrassing to the White House, all the better. In the future, maybe it will handle such matters in the light of day.