In the 1980s, as a senior staffer at the Federal Trade Commission, Timothy J. Muris was on the front lines of the Reagan Revolution. At the time, he advocated greater lenience toward mergers and derided the commission's regulatory apparatus as Washington's "second-most-powerful legislature." Now, as the newly minted chairman of the FTC, Muris is in a position to back those words with deeds.
Muris has changed his tune, however. The 51-year-old former academic now says he wants to continue much of the work of his Clintonite predecessor, Robert Pitofsky. He warns companies against trying to get "dumb" mergers past him and promises to beef up the FTC's role on privacy.
Has the former Reaganite gone soft? Not exactly. Muris argues he appears moderate today because much of the Reagan antitrust and consumer-protection agenda remains intact. Muris recently sat down in his Pennsylvania Avenue office to discuss his agenda with BusinessWeek legal affairs correspondent Dan Carney. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: How do you think your administration will differ from that of your predecessor, Robert Pitofsky?
A: Clearly, there's going to be more continuity than change. The focus under Pitofsky has been on horizontal restraints [efforts to limit the market power companies can obtain by dominating a particular industry]. That will obviously continue.
A lot of other issues he raised as important -- such as the drug issue [whether drug companies are using patent law to keep generic competitors off the market] -- we will continue to look at. If the merger wave has receded, which it appears as if it has, then there will be more opportunity to work on nonmerger issues than there have been in the last several years.
Q: The European Union moved to block the General Electric-Honeywell deal. Is it going to be more of a challenge to work with the Europeans on antitrust issues?
A: The Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger [in 1995] was very contentious. The question is: Is GE-Honeywell going to be something that occurs every 6 or 7 years? Or is it going to become more common? I've met with the Europeans. They clearly would prefer that we agree more than we disagree. That would be my sentiment as well.
Q: Do you think this means there will be more political intervention in antitrust matters?
A: I haven't seen that. Again, there have been these two cases in seven years.
Q: What did you think of the Clinton Administration's merger-review policies?
A: Most of the merger cases I knew about in the Clinton Administration I approved of. In fact, there is one case I criticized them for not bringing: Microsoft and WebTV. Microsoft paid about $425 million for a technology with few customers. And it was a competing technology with Microsoft's operating system. It seemed to me that was a merger that should have been challenged.
Q: Are you going to approve a higher percentage of mergers?
A: If people think it's going to be significantly easier to get a major horizontal merger through now, I just think that's wrong. If people bring dumb mergers, we'll challenge them. I used the world "dumb," as opposed to "anticompetitive." "Dumb" is more graphic.
Q: What are your thoughts now on the AOL-Time Warner agreement.
A: There were serious anticompetitive issues that the merger raised.
Q: Lawyers for the company say the restrictions on interactive TV amount to a bunch of bureaucrats deciding how a barely nascent industry is going to play out.
A: Well, I don't want to talk specifically about interactive TV, because I don't know all the particulars. But if you have a situation where you have product coming online and you have a merger that could very significantly affect the incentives for major players, it seems to me perfectly appropriate to look at it. Sure, that's going to be nebulous. But I think it's appropriate.
Q: What has changed since you worked at the commission in the 1980s?
A: The biggest single difference is that the stuff we were arguing over then is accepted now.
Let me give you a few examples. The emphasis on horizontal agreements that is universally accepted now was reliably controversial then. The FTC and the Justice Dept. had done a large number of vertical and conglomerate cases in the '70s [and] that just wasn't true in the '90s. The second example is the GM-Toyota joint venture [creating Geo], which was approved 3-2. The dissenters said this was the apocalypse. The criticism now is: How could you have put so many restrictions on it? The criticism now is from the right, not the left.
Q: What are your plans on privacy?
A: I've come to several conclusions. One, privacy is an extremely important issue. And two, the FTC has a very important role to play. I'm hoping there's a broader case agenda. We're looking at some new areas that involve privacy protection. In the coming months you'll see some more aggressive enforcement.
Q: What are we taking about?
A: Unfortunately, this stuff is all nonpublic and very New Age. But what it involves in the abstract is people misusing sensitive financial and health information.
Q: What are you hoping people say about your tenure when you step down?
A: What's important is that people say that I continued the bipartisan agenda, that I was a sensible law-enforcer. And I hope people say I was appropriately aggressive at times and appropriately cautious at times.