Stephen Labaton lands on the front page of the Sunday NYT today with "Antitrust Chief Hits Resistance in Crackdown". He says tougher antitrust enforcement by the Department of Justice has ruffled feathers at "expert" agencies, regulate specific industries:
In some cases, though, the new approach is being opposed by administration officials. Some fear that the crackdown is coming at a bad time, as corporate America reels from the recession. Other officials embrace the Bush administration’s view that larger companies and industry alliances can provide consumer benefits by making their businesses more efficient.
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“The struggles between the expert agencies and the Justice Department get to the heart and soul of exactly what the competition policy of the Obama administration will be,” said Mark Cooper, an antitrust expert and director of research at the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group.
He added: “Now you have an antitrust division that cares about competition, and it is running up against the expert agencies that haven’t changed their attitudes yet.”
Blawgletter notes that your expert agencies have ever and always taken a more friendly tack with the outfits they oversee. Expert regulators often as not come from, or go to, the very businesses they regulate. We expect some coziness.
Not so with folks in the Antitrust Division. Antitrusters find and fix anticompetitive conduct regardless of industry. They watch, and answer to, no particular group. So you figure they'll see bad behavior where the expert folks say okie dokie.
Note that, most of the time, the expert agencies can't trump the AD. The Department of Transportation might grant immunity for airlines to form an "alliance", but the Division still may prosecute the members for fixing prices. And the Federal Communications Commission may give a pass to a cable merger, but that won't preclude charges of monopolization.
So the dispute within the federales' camp looks fun to watch. Its outcome matters less than you'd think.