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Antitrust bust: Divvying FTC and DOJ duties

A reorganization of responsibilities between the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission failed last week after members of Congress and some FTC commissioners complained that their input had not been sought.

"The agreement announced today is the product of private discussions between [FTC] Chairman [Timothy] Muris and Assistant Attorney General [Charles] James," said Democratic FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson. "Chairman Muris failed to consult with, or provide meaningful opportunity for, other commissioners to provide any input."

The proposal had been about reorganizing merger reviews so that all media, telecommunications, software and games would be looked at automatically by the Justice Department, while health-care, energy and electricity would be given to the Federal Trade Commission. Currently, the two negotiate over who will evaluate what.

Consumer advocates say the two bodies handle their duties differently because the Department of Justice is responsible to the administration, while the FTC is an independent panel, much like the FCC.

"The FTC's bipartisan and more independent approach has made it a more effective mechanism to review mergers in the media industries," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Most recently, the FTC reviewed the AOL Time Warner combination, placing conditions on the deal's approval.

Meanwhile, the FCC last week finalized its plan to combine the Mass Media and Cable Services Bureaus into one office. The plan goes into effect once Congress approves it.