WASHINGTON — Still seething, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) on Tuesday said the Senate Commerce Committee will conduct a formal review of a Bush administration pact giving John Ashcroft’s U.S. Dept. of Justice full responsibility for reviewing all media/entertainment mergers, cutting out the bipartisan Federal Trade Commission.
In twin letters, Hollings sternly instructed Ashcroft and FTC chair Timothy Muris to turn over to the committee all correspondence, memoranda and email regarding the joint agreement drawn up by Muris and Asst. Attorney General Charles James. The solon also wants the names of all people who discussed the matter, including any outside parties.
Hollings and consumer advocates question whether a review by the FTC is really the same as a review by the DOJ, since the FTC is an independent agency.
DOJ, on the other hand, is part of the executive branch.
“By granting the DOJ exclusive jurisdiction over all media outlets — television, radio, newspapers, as well as movie theaters, production studios and book publishers — the agreement, in effect, has created for the DOJ complete oversight and control of all major public information distribution systems and media content providers,” Hollings wrote to Muris and Ashcroft.
Ready to comply
An FTC spokesman said Muris is prepared to comply with Hollings’ request. DOJ is expected to do the same.
“We believe that a public examination will underscore the fact that an overhaul of the clearance process was much needed and that the new agreement will enhance the quality of antitrust enforcement,” Muris said.
For more than 50 years, proposed corporate mergers were assigned to either the FTC or the DOJ on a piecemeal basis for antitrust officials to review. DOJ reviewed the Viacom/CBS deal, for instance, while the FTC studied the AOL Time Warner merger.
The restructuring plan, which went into effect last week, divides various industries between the FTC and DOJ from the outset. DOJ now will handle the media industry; while the FTC will take charge of such sectors as health and energy.
In recent years, infighting between the DOJ and FTC had increased, with each claiming jurisdiction over a particular merger, leading to costly delays in the review process.
Muris and James have insisted that their plan cleans up the process, and that each agency is qualified to give the same fair and equitable review, regardless of a particular industry.
Hollings, though, believes Muris and James lacked the authority to implement the plan without first getting approval of Congress.
The Bush administration says Capitol Hill’s blessing wasn’t needed. Other lawmakers agree, including Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.).