Dem senators ask AT&T and Time Warner to show merger's public benefit

Dem senators ask AT&T and Time Warner to show merger's public benefit
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A group of 13 senators signed a letter on Wednesday asking AT&T and Time Warner to illustrate how their proposed merger “would serve the public interest.”

The letter — whose signatories included Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate panel approves Scott Brown as NZ ambassador Senate confirms Trump's first lower-court nominee The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersFunding confusion complicates Meals on Wheels budget fight The Hill's 12:30 Report Five takeaways from the Montana special election MORE (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — called out AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes for what they see as an attempt to circumvent Federal Communications Commission review.

“To achieve greater transparency for regulators, lawmakers, and American consumers, we ask that you provide us with a public interest statement detailing how you plan to ensure that the transaction benefits consumers, promotes competition, remedies all potential harms, and further serves the public interest through the broader policy goals of the Communications Act,” the senators wrote.

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An AT&T spokesperson wrote in a statement emailed to The Hill that the telecom company is willing to explain the merger's benefits to lawmakers. 

"We are always happy to answer any questions about the merger and, of course, will follow all processes required by law, including the extensive Hart-Scott-Rodino review process at the Department of Justice [DOJ] through which we will produce millions of documents, and extensive analyses.  As we testified recently before Congress, the merger will create more competition for cable TV providers, giving consumers more options and accelerating next generation wireless broadband."

Representatives Time Warner did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

In a January SEC filing, AT&T and Time Warner revealed that they would not transfer FCC licenses in their $85 billion merger, allowing the deal to avoid FCC review. Such a review would have required the companies to prove that their merger is in the public interest.

“We maintain that further consolidation in the telecommunications and media industries should only be permitted if it results in better and more affordable services for consumers across the nation, and we look forward to working with you to achieve this critical goal,” the senators wrote.

Hal Singer, an economist at George Washington University's Institute of Public Policy, said on Wednesday that lawmakers may be asking too much.

"The senators appear to want to flip the burden around for DOJ merger reviews," Singer said. "It seems like such a significant departure from the standard DOJ rules should be considered apart from a particular merger—that is, this merger should not receive special treatment."

The DOJ will review the deal for issues any potential antitrust or anticompetitive issues, however its guidelines for approval or rejection are much more narrow than the FCC’s decision on whether it benefits the public interest.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in December, Democratic lawmakers grilled Bewkes and Stephenson on the impacts of the merger.

“There would greater leverage in negotiation with content distributors as a result of this deal,” Sen. Al FrankenAl FrankenTrump and Russia: A timeline on communications Overnight Energy: Trump energy nominees face Congress | OPEC to extend production cuts Senate gears up for fight on Trump's 0B Saudi Arabia arms sale MORE (D-Minn.) — one of the letter’s signatories — said to the executives. “Do you think AT&T would benefit from using this as leverage?”

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House is 'not going to comment on Jared’ Kushner Clinton returns to election night convention hall to talk about her new book Trump's sons, daughter-in-law huddled with RNC leaders to discuss strategy: report MORE has also voiced his opposition to the merger, citing that it would be too much power in the hands of too few. He has since obfuscated and walked back this position, telling Axios in an interview that while he is on record saying these things, he hasn’t seen “any of the facts."

This story was updated on 1:23 p.m. on Jan. 25.