Pols’ ping-pong

New merger proposal keeps FTC in the loop

WASHINGTON — If Capitol Hill absolutely prefers that the Federal Trade Commission continue to play a role in reviewing media/entertainment mergers, agency topper Timothy Muris would consider such a proposal and revisit a new arrangement giving John Ashcroft’s Dept. of Justice sole authority.

Although Muris believes the recent pact with DOJ will make the merger review process much more efficient, he is open to instruction from Congress to keep the FTC in the loop, insiders said Tuesday.

For decades, the DOJ and FTC have shared responsibility for reviewing corporate mergers, assigning them on a piecemeal basis.

Under the new agreement drawn up by Muris and Asst. Attorney General Charles James and signed off on earlier this month, industries are now divided up between the two agencies from the outset, with the media/entertainment biz going to DOJ.

Muris and James say the restructuring pact makes the process more efficient, eliminating infighting between the two agencies over jurisdiction when it comes to a particular merger. In recent years, such spats have increased at an alarming rate, leading to costly delays.

Tug-of-war

Media mergers are especially desirable, leaving them vulnerable to a tug-of-wills between the DOJ and FTC.

But consumer advocates have blasted the plan, saying the FTC is an independent agency governed by a bi-partisan board, whereas DOJ has a direct line to the White House.

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) also was incensed, saying Congress should have been consulted. He said the public interest is better served by an FTC review.

Yet Muris has been correct in stating that the majority of media/entertainment mergers have gone to DOJ over the years. An aberration was last year, when the FTC reviewed the AOL Time Warner deal. Thus, the DOJ has plenty of experience and institutional memory.

Amok time

Hollings, however, has not been appeased by this argument. At a budget hearing on March 19, the solon told Muris the Bush administration had “run amok” and threatened to hold up or cut the agency’s budget, including salaries.

Other pols, however, have expressed support of the merger restructuring.

Yet Hollings said only Congress had the authority to make such changes to the merger review process; Muris and James have both disagreed.

Turns out, though, that Muris is continuing to speak with Capitol Hill politicos about the merger restructuring agreement, officials said.

If Congress strongly believes the FTC should still review some media/entertainment mergers, the agreement signed by the FTC and DOJ could be amended.

Presently, the DOJ is reviewing both the EchoStar/DirecTV deal, and the proposed Comcast/AT&T Broadband merger.

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