Last November, the Senate antitrust subcommittee appeared forever deadlocked on a bill that would restore a right few American consumers are aware they have lost - the right to sue manufacturers for price fixing or monopolization under the antitrust laws.
As judges across the nation were threatening to throw out of their courts millions of dollars in antitrust lawsuits, the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass), engineered a legislative maneuver that broke the subcommittee's 4-to-4 deadlock, but would leave most consumers in a position little better than the one they are in now.
In a landmark case last year the Supreme Court ruled the state of Illinois did not have the right to sue a brick manufacturer under the anititrust laws, even though the manufacturer had supplied bricks for a state office building at an inflated price as the result of a price-fixing arrangement.
The court said the state had not been injured in a legal sense because it had dealt not with the brick manufacturer but with a construction company that purchased supplies from the brick manufacturer.
The contractor, a "direct purchaser" from the manufacturer, had the right to sue, the court said, but the state, a "indirect purchaser," did not. The case in commonly refered to as the Illinois brick case.
The bill on which Kennedy's subcommittee was deadlocked is an effort to restore to indirect purchasers - a group that includes most individual consumers - the right to sue under the antitrust laws.
A final hearing was held on the bill yesterday, and a vote in the full Judiciary Committee is expected by May 5.
Waht Kennedy did in November was reach an accommodation with an ideological arch-enemy, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), who had a problem of his own. Laxalt, one of the four senators voting against the bill, was under considerable pressure from cattlemen in his state who found themselves unable to sue food processors and retailers for monopolistic practice because of the Illonis brick ruling.
According to several Captiol Hill sources, Laxalt traded his vote for the bill for an amendment he authroized that leaves the right to sue intact for all indirect purchases except the final consumers.
Under Laxalt's amendment, which was attached to the bill in subcommittee. "If you're a businessman, a corporation, a retailer, or something like that you can sue, but if you're a natural person, you can't sue." said Ray Marvin, general counsel for the National Association of Attorneys General a leading proponent of the bill.