President Obama’s antitrust enforcement

The conversation around the 2016 presidential election has been driven by Americans’ desire for change and overwhelming need for greater economic security. This is hardly new: President Obama ran on a policy platform which starkly contrasted the policies of his predecessor. Yet the impact of his policies was hampered by the difficult economic and business environment created in the Bush years. In the lengthening shadow of the 2008 market crash, Obama’s stance on antitrust enforcement is more relevant than ever before. He vowed to rein in big business interests, which were given too long a leash, pushing the economy to the brink.

The Bush Administration handled competition enforcement minimally if at all. Between 2001 and 2008, markets became more and more concentrated as companies merged without a problem. Risky mergers such as Whirlpool-Maytag were approved without so much as tacking on remedies. Rare litigation to block mergers was largely unsuccessful. During the Bush years, prices went up, quality went down, and consumers suffered. Facing no credible threat of enforcement, companies were restricted only by what the market would bear.

{mosads}In theory, the federal government ensures that markets remain competitive despite efforts by powerful businesses to monopolize the market. The Bush administration successfully litigated only one merger case in the whole of the President’s tenure. DOJ permitted the consummation of hundreds of mergers in the health insurance market alone, leaving President Obama to negotiate a concentrated insurance market. The Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature achievement, relies heavily on competitive markets and had to be imbedded with provisions that foster competition for the new law to work.

In the last months of his presidency, Obama is not letting things slide. This summer, he published a paper in the medical journal JAMA calling for increased competition to help the ACA work better and DOJ sued to block two insurance mega-mergers that would have harmed consumers. Back in April, he called upon all federal agencies to do their part to promote competition in their own capacities. In the past 18 months, the federal government investigated or blocked high profile mergers such as Halliburton-Baker Hughes, Comcast-Time Warner, Staples-Office Depot, Sysco-US Foods, and most recently, Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna.

An “Obama third term” is a phrase sometimes used to criticize Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform. But, at the same time, the political right seems to be borrowing rhetoric from the left about wages, income inequality, and small business interests. One way that is proven to help all those goals: promote and improve competition.

In June, liberal powerhouse and Democratic firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivered a speech that expanded on President Obama’s antitrust agenda and made a pitch to believers in the free market. She made the case that concentration in markets leads to unfair economic and political power, an uneven playing field for small businesses, and market inefficiencies. Warren’s speech was a call to action aimed at the next President of the United States. She made the case that what the country needs is a leader who will continue and improve upon Obama’s strong antitrust record. That leader is Hillary Clinton, and in this respect a “third term” of successful antitrust policy is necessary to protect small businesses and ordinary Americans.

Early indications show that Clinton will be as good, if not better than Obama in enforcing our nation’s antitrust laws. The Clinton campaign applauded DOJ’s announcement that it would sue to block the mergers. A spokesperson said, “Hillary will continue to fight to reduce health costs and strengthen antitrust enforcement to prevent corporations from gaining too much market power at the expense of fair competition and harming hard-working Americans and consumers. She will also work to strengthen the health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act so that more families have access to even more plans with lower premiums and out of pocket costs.” This statement shows a level of commitment about enforcing antitrust laws that speaks to the tone of the Clinton campaign in general. Hillary Clinton is a candidate who does her homework. On antitrust, she is prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.

Antitrust is not something most consumers know a lot about, but it touches our lives every day. The next President must take antitrust enforcement very seriously or markets will become more concentrated, prices will rise, and consumers will suffer. Those who are just scraping by may not be able to make ends meet. High school students who need internet to succeed may lose access because their parents cannot afford the latest price hike. But with a clear vision and steady economic leadership, we can make sure that markets are healthy, prices are affordable, and good-paying jobs are available to all Americans willing to work hard.

The stakes are real. And Hillary Clinton is the candidate we can trust to keep Obama’s antitrust legacy going. 

David Balto counsels a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, small business and consumer advocates on antitrust and consumer protection compliance, strategic alliances, distribution issues, mergers and joint ventures. He is the former Policy Director of the FTC in the Clinton Administration.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton

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