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 WarrenDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' The Trojan Horse of protectionism Federal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersPelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill topline higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war Congress must address the looming debt crisis 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 FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenAl Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? 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 takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default 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.