Power Struggle: Hollings targets Muris, FTC mission

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Ratcheting up the stakes in a pitched battle with the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission over media consolidation antitrust issues, Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., suggested he'd like FTC Chairman Tim Muris to be put out of commission.

"I am trying to eliminate him," Sen. Hollings told Advertising Age last week, acknowledging that he is refusing to meet with Mr. Muris and may move to cut the FTC's budget if Mr. Muris remains and doesn't reverse course.

Andy Davis, an aide to the senator, later described the comment as borne of the senator's "frustration" with Mr. Muris' action on merger reviews, but not entirely serious. "Sen. Hollings is one of the strongest backers of the FTC," said Mr. Davis. "What he is upset about is that [Mr. Muris] has to be brought dragging, kicking and screaming to do the FTC's job serving as advocates for U.S. consumers."

Sen. Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, also heads the Senate Appropriations Committee that oversees the FTC's budget. Mr. Muris was named by President Bush to head the FTC last year and took office June 4, 2001.

off the top

Mr. Davis confirmed last week that the FTC chairman has been asked to prepare a "cost analysis" for eliminating the agency's "public affairs office, the legislative affairs office and all positions over GS 15," meaning all FTC positions paying more than $100,000. That attention-getting move poses the threat of eliminating the budget for all the agency's top executives, its public relations department, lobbyists and commissioners.

Mr. Muris last week, in a conversation with the chairman of a similar House Appropriations panel, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., complained that more than 50 of the FTC's 1,100-plus positions would be eliminated should Sen. Hollings' plan go through. He also said Sen. Hollings was rejecting his entreaties to meet.

Asked about both Sen. Hollings' plan to reduce staff and the senator's desire to "eliminate" him, Mr. Muris issued a statement saying only that he was "surprised that Sen. Hollings, being such a strong advocate of consumer protections, would consider a measure that would virtually eliminate the FTC's ability to protect consumers."

The feud was touched off when Mr. Muris moved to resolve the longstanding intra-governmental fight between the Justice Department and the FTC over which agency handles antitrust review of deals, in part by ceding the FTC's antitrust enforcement over media deals. Mr. Muris has said the switch in antitrust oversight was intended to resolve questions as converging media deals increasingly led to fights over which body would review particular deals.

Consumer groups, some businesses and the two Democratic members of the five-member commission have argued the FTC, as an independent agency, would be far more aggressive in reviewing media merger deals than the Justice Department, which could face political pressure to swiftly approve deals. They contrast the FTC's aggressive demands in reviewing America Online's takeover of Time Warner to the Bush Justice Department's willingness to settle the Microsoft Corp. antitrust suit.

Sen. Hollings has complained vociferously about the switch to the Justice Department for similar reasons, but he was even more livid about the way it happened.

Instead of the Commerce Committee being extensively consulted by Mr. Muris and the Justice Department, the committee learned of the planned switch as reporters were gathering for a Jan. 17 news conference. The announcement was put off, but on March 5, as the committee staff negotiated with Mr. Muris and the Justice Department, the deal was publicly announced as fait accompli.

no decision

Last week, Sen. Hollings confirmed he is refusing to meet with Mr. Muris but said he hadn't made a decision yet on whether he would move to cut the FTC's budget if Mr. Muris remains.

While Sen. Hollings hasn't decided what action he will take regarding the FTC, he said he intends to act. Said Sen. Hollings: "We are very much concerned that they are trying to get away from their principal jurisdiction."

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