To consumer advocates, Obama's
antitrust enforcement looks like
more of the same
By Jia Lynn Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 11:27 PM
When President Obama took office, he promised to undo
eight years of what he called the weakest antitrust
enforcement in half a century. Consumer advocates held
their breath for a dramatic shift that would hark back to the
1990s, when the last Democratic administration pursued a
landmark case against
A year and a half later, they're still waiting. The Justice Department's antitrust division has yet to exercise its
signature power: to bring a case against a corporate titan suspected of abusing its dominance. In its other central
role, as a merger cop, the division challenged in court fewer than half as many deals in 2009 as the Bush
administration did in its last year in office, though the number of mergers also declined by about half.
Instead, federal antitrust lawyers have eschewed aggressive litigation against big business in favor of a less-risky
approach that works with companies to resolve anti-competitive concerns, according to many antitrust experts.
"They're running a good shop. It's just not markedly different," said Albert A. Foer, president of the American
Antitrust Institute, a research and advocacy group. "Anybody that wants to argue the Obama administration is
anti-business or socializing America is not going to find much evidence in the antitrust division."
A pattern is emerging in how the administration treats corporate America. In spite of some tough rhetoric,
Obama has shown a certain reluctance to radically reshape industries. Rather than break up big Wall Street
banks, the White House largely pressed to toughen rules as part of the financial regulatory overhaul. Instead of
putting limits on how much bank executives earn, the administration encouraged federal supervisors to push these
firms to tie pay to performance.
A scalpel, not a cudgel
Likewise, the antitrust division has shown itself more likely to use a scalpel than a blunt instrument when a merger
has crossed its desk. When faced with mergers it worries will hurt competition, the Justice Department has
forced companies to make some changes, such as spinning off a business line. But with one exception involving
dairy processors, it has not gone to court to block deals, including the controversial marriage of Ticketmaster and
Live Nation, the recent United-Continental airline merger and the union of the two biggest makers of voting