Antitrust under Bush hazy

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First American Airlines and TWA, then Nestle and Ralston Purina. Could deal makers be expecting President George W. Bush to ease antitrust enforcement compared with the administration of former President Bill Clinton?

While some groups hope the regulation might ease, lawyers and consumer groups say the antitrust policies that will come from the new administration are not yet clear because questions remain about the appointment of key personnel.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hopeful that the new administration will work to speed antitrust review and be more limited in the use of outside counsel.

"We would like to see further streamlining of the process and harmonization of the processes in the U.S. with those in foreign countries," said Robin Conrad, senior VP for legal affairs. "There are also problems with the hiring of outside counsels [by the Department of Justice] because all they want to do is litigate."

It also hopes a Bush administration will be less aggressive in taking on new economy companies.

"We would like to see them foster industry growth without undue government influence," Ms. Conrad added, suggesting that the WorldCom-Sprint deal was stop-ped for new economy issues-the effects on Web, wireless and long-distance markets-that wouldn't have been concerns in an old economy deal. "In the Internet arena, some of old rules may not apply."

Lawyers and some consumer groups, however, say that the Clinton administration was already letting many deals go through, and suggested the changes in the Bush administration will likely be minor.

"There has been this tremendous consolidation and merger activity over the last few years, not just in the last month or two," said Robert Skitol, a Washington antitrust lawyer who is representing some smaller tortilla chip makers who have asked the Federal Trade Commission to impose restraints on slotting. "The Clinton administration was pretty permissive. There were some high-visibility examples where they stopped them, but the vast majority have sailed through.

"There was a lot more change from Reagan to Bush than there will be from Clinton to Bush II. On a close call, it will be a plus factor, but a lot of merger enforcement is bipartisan," he said.

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, said a Republican administration doesn't always translate to an easing of antitrust enforcement.

"I'm not going to prejudge anything. You can't tell exactly what will happen," he said, noting that Republicans and Democrats are on both sides of a number of antitrust deals from Microsoft on down.

"Frequently, Democrats confuse being pro-competitive with being pro-business. This is going to be a moderate Republican administration, and antitrust isn't one of the gut issues like abortion. You can't tell exactly what will happen."

Mr. Cooper noted that the Microsoft antitrust case some Republicans oppose was decided by a judge appointed by a Republican and has won support from GOP state attorneys general and from Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

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