Top Antitrust Enforcers Respond to Congressional Questioning
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Assistant Attorney General William Baer testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law on May 15, 2015. The oversight hearing provided an opportunity for the heads of the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies to survey their agencies’ priorities and recent achievements. The two agency heads also faced congressional questions on a variety of topics ranging from proposed reforms to the FTC’s merger review process to the alleged unfair targeting of foreign firms by Chinese antitrust authorities.
In her prepared testimony, Chairwoman Ramirez reviewed her agency’s recent activity, emphasizing especially recent U.S. Supreme Court and appellate court victories. She reiterated the agency’s strategic focus on core areas of concern, including health care, where the agency continues to review health care provider and pharmaceutical industry mergers carefully. Ramirez also stressed the agency’s continued attention to combating efforts to stifle generic drug competition. Other key focus areas include consumer products and services, technology and energy markets.
For the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Antitrust Division, Assistant Attorney General Baer’s prepared remarks focused on the division’s criminal cartel enforcement activity, including the expansive London Interbank Offered Rates and auto parts investigations. Baer also highlighted the Division’s civil enforcement activity, noting for example that three major mergers had recently been abandoned in the face of concerns raised by the division.
Chairwoman Ramirez faced questioning from the subcommittee about its merger review process. Asked about a recent rule change, Ramirez downplayed the significance of the change and stated that it was meant merely to clarify the agency’s position in situations where a court has refused to issue a preliminary injunction. She stated that the new rule was not a departure from past practice and that the Commission always assessed each case to determine whether to continue with an administrative hearing in the wake of the denial of an injunction.
Ramirez also faced questioning about the proposed SMARTER Act. The proposed legislation, which passed out of committee in the House last fall, would require the DOJ and FTC to satisfy the same standards to obtain preliminary injunctions against mergers. Currently, for the DOJ to obtain an injunction, it must show that the transaction would cause irreparable harm if allowed to go forward. The FTC faces a different test, and must only show that the injunction is in the public interest. Under the proposed legislation, both agencies would be held to the irreparable harm standard. In addition, the legislation would prevent the FTC from using its administrative court for mergers where an injunction has been denied. Chairwoman Ramirez contended that the proposed Act “undermines one of the central strengths of the Federal Trade Commission and one of the reasons the FTC was created in the first instance, which was to have an expert body of bipartisan commissioners rule on and develop antitrust doctrine.” She pointed also to the agency’s record of appellate success to stress her view that the current system is working.
Assistant Attorney General Baer faced questions about alleged unfair targeting of foreign firms by Chinese antitrust authorities. Baer responded that these concerns are being addressed at the highest levels of the administration in bilateral contacts with Chinese authorities. Both agencies emphasized that they continue to communicate such concerns to their Chinese counterparts. Baer noted that the antitrust enforcers were limited in their ability to retaliate against any such activity. “As antitrust enforcers, I think, we don’t have many hammers, and it would be inappropriate for, I think, as a law enforcement function to threaten retaliation that is not on the merits.”