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 WarrenSanders keeping door open on 2020 Scaramucci deletes old tweets bashing Trump Trump's new communications chief once called him a 'hack' MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders keeping door open on 2020 Parliamentarian deals setback to GOP repeal bill OPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? 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 FrankenSunday shows preview: Scaramucci makes TV debut as new communication chief The Hill's 12:30 Report OPINION | Liberal hysteria over Trump's voter fraud panel proves why it's needed 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 TrumpTrump's forgotten man and woman — still forgotten Ex-Trump aide: Panel probing Russia sounding ‘more and more like McCarthy’ Trump visits Virginia golf club 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.