Annie Gets Her Antitrust Gunby
President Clinton's new antitrust czar, Anne K. Bingaman, got started in the trust-busting business by accident. She had barely hung up her shingle in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1975 when another lawyer asked her to help United Nuclear Corp., a uranium-mining company, in a suit against Gulf Oil and Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Five years later, her dogged pursuit of the case won United $1 billion. Adversaries such as attorney Marshall G. Martin recall her as being a royal "pain in the rear."
Now, Bingaman may start causing similar discomfort to lots of companies, including software giant Microsoft Corp. As head of the Justice Dept.'s Antitrust Div., she plans to bring an activist approach to a shop that got sleepy during its years of laissez-faire Republican leadership. Already, on Aug. 10, she withdrew Reagan-era guidelines that had made it easier for manufacturers to fix prices with distributors. Instead, she vowed to attack such arrangements as potentially anticompetitive. Clintonites want to chart other new directions by incorporating antitrust actions into international competitiveness policy and, perhaps, health-care reform.
Skeptics wonder how much Bingaman, 50, will be able to achieve. With a background as a plaintiff's attorney in a job that has typically gone to academics or defense lawyers, "she's an unconventional choice," says George Mason University law professor William E. Kovacic, an antitrust expert. Not only that, but her resources are limited: Since 1980, her division has shrunk by one-third, to 300 lawyers, as conservative courts have steadily cut down the trustbusters' reach.
"AN EARLY SCALP." But Bingaman is starting out with a bang. On July 28, the Justice Dept. made the unusual request for documents in the Federal Trade Commission's case against Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.--the first sign of Bingaman's aggressiveness. The FTC had been probing alleged unfair business practices at Microsoft for three years but deadlocked a week earlier on whether to sue the company. A formal investigation hasn't yet been launched, but the bets are on that Bingaman will pursue the case. Says Kovacic: "It's one way to claim an early scalp."
Bingaman is likely to be just as hard-nosed in other areas. One important goal: She wants to pursue foreign companies that violate American antitrust laws. "Anyone who sells in U.S. markets should play by our rules," she says. Still, American companies shouldn't expect special favors from trustbusters, such as automatic O.K.s on mergers that enhance their global competitiveness. "We shoot ourselves in the foot if we have a more lenient enforcement policy" that favors global U.S. companies over rivals that compete only locally or regionally, says Bingaman.
The health-care industry is also unlikely to get any breaks. On Aug. 10, Bingaman said that the Justice Dept. and the FTC would draft guidelines for hospitals and doctors on cooperative ventures, but she won't give them any more leeway than they already have to combine or collude. And pharmaceutical companies that clamor for a special exemption to set price ceilings on drugs are likely to be disappointed. She also wants to spearhead inquiries into industries important to consumers, such as computers (table).
Bingaman showed political savvy in winning her job. She has practiced law in the capital since her husband, Jeff, took his Senate seat (D-N.M.) in 1983. The Bingamans don't know Bill and Hillary well, but Anne worked on Clinton's Justice transition team, using that as a base to lobby for the antitrust slot. She even sent faxes to supporters quashing false rumors that she had a "Zo e Baird" problem with illegal household help.
Bingaman's background may account for some of her drive. She is from Jerome, Ariz., a mining town where her parents owned small grocery stores. And like many women lawyers of her generation, she overcame discrimination to build a career. When she graduated from Stanford University law school in 1968, the only job offers she got were as a paralegal. Eventually, she took a teaching post at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and worked her way up. One accomplishment she's proud of: She successfully lobbied for a state equal-rights amendment in 1972.
In short, companies that rile Anne Bingaman will face a gritty, determined opponent. In fact, before Clinton's term ends, major companies that step out of line on antitrust issues may end up remembering her as some old adversaries do: a major pain in the you-know-what.
ANNE BINGAMAN'S PRIORITIES After years of laissez-faire GOP policy, Clinton's new antitrust czar plans to tighten up in these areas: PRICE FIXING Will go after manufacturers that try to set high prices with retailers and squeeze out discounters BUSINESS CONDUCT Starting with Microsoft, will scrutinize companies whose practices may harm competitors and consumers PROTECTING CONSUMERS Will look hard at the price and quality of computers and other high-technology products INTERNATIONAL POLICING Will step up review and enforcement of foreign companies' compliance with antitrust laws in the U.S. DATA: BUSINESS WEEK