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Antitrust Lawyer Takes Helm at FTC

Majoras Inherits Agenda of Consumer Protection, Faces High Oil Prices

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page A02

As Deborah P. Majoras takes over the Federal Trade Commission on Monday, she's expected to build on the broad agenda set by her predecessor, Timothy J. Muris.

She will face a host of issues, including policing the do-not-call list and pressing for more competition in the health care industry. But high oil prices and increased merger activity could force her to shift some of the agency's emphasis away from the consumer protections that were the highlight of the Muris years, some current and former agency officials say.

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"Most of it will be more of the same," said Robert Pitofsky, who was FTC chairman before Muris. However, he noted, Majoras may have to pay attention to high oil prices, especially if there are oil mergers or decisions to close refineries. Those, he said, "would go to the top of the list on the antitrust side."

Majoras, a 41-year-old Republican antitrust lawyer, declined to comment until she has begun at the commission.

Muris, 54, is returning to George Mason University School of Law, where he will lead the search for a new dean. Muris hoped Majoras's nomination would be confirmed earlier this summer.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) blocked her nomination, saying the commission was inadequately policing the oil industry for anti-competitive behavior, leading to steep gasoline prices on the West Coast.

President Bush appointed Majoras anyway, while Congress was in recess. He also appointed Democrat Jon Leibowitz to the commission. Both can serve, without Senate confirmation, through 2005.

On Muris's last day yesterday, the agency released a staff study that found that FTC-approved mergers in the oil industry have not caused an increase in crude oil prices.

The report did not specifically address the impact of mergers and acquisitions on gasoline prices, but last month the commission's general counsel testified in Congress that mergers had not affected consumer prices, discounting a recent Government Accountability Office report that found some mergers between 1991 and 2000 led to gasoline price increases, especially on the West Coast. A more detailed FTC study on gasoline prices is underway, and officials could not say yesterday when it would be released.

It will be up to Majoras to release that study, which could create further tension with Wyden. At her nomination hearing, Majoras promised to appoint a special energy counsel and examine the lack of investment in refining capacity, but Wyden said those were insufficient steps.

The commission could also get swamped reviewing mergers if the economy picks up. Commissioner Thomas B. Leary said he is prepared for that, given the increase in merger activity during the first six months of the year. That could cut into the time the commission has to spend fighting other anti-competitive behavior, particularly in going after companies that use patent law and state rules to thwart competition -- a high priority of Muris, long a foe of excessive government regulation.

That philosophy, evident since the mid-1970s -- when Muris joined the FTC in a lower-level position as part of the Reagan deregulation campaign -- left some executives surprised when Muris pushed for the do-not-call list. "It was a shock to me that a strong conservative Republican such as Muris would take the point of view that expanding the government's role" was the proper way to control telemarketers, said H. Robert Wientzen, the outgoing president of the Direct Marketing Association.

Muris didn't agree. "Can you think of a milder form of regulation?" he asked. "It's a regulation that says if you put your name on a list, telemarketers can't call you. If that's a major expansion of government, then I'm guilty."

A group of telemarketing firms is challenging the list, and the Supreme Court is reviewing whether it will take the case.

A number of other Muris decisions are also being challenged in court, making Majoras "responsible for the cementing of the legacy of Tim Muris," said William MacLeod, a Washington attorney who was director of the FTC's consumer protection division. "It's a nice coincidence that Majoras, whose background is in litigation and merger work, is going to be the person defending and hopefully solidifying the commission's mission."

Staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.


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