Policy

Warren Takes on Comcast So You Don't Have To

Massachusetts Democrat wants increased focus on anti-trust enforcement

Sen. Elizabeth Warren spoke Wednesday about antitrust laws. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

If you've got a beef with Comcast, you're not alone.  

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took on the telecom company, which she said serves more than half of the nation's cable and internet subscribers.  

"Last year was Comcast’s best year in nearly a decade," the Massachusetts Democrat said in prepared remarks for a speech. "But while big telecom giants have been consuming each other, consumers have been left out in the cold — facing little or no choice in service providers and paying through the nose for cable and internet service.  

Warren's speech at a forum on monopolies came as part of her advocacy for greater enforcement of antitrust laws as American consumers pay higher prices for cable and Internet services than those elsewhere.  

Warren cited the cable giant specifically, along with technology players like Apple and Google, the big airlines and Wal-Mart. While the Obama administration has blocked some deals, the U.S. has been through a strong period of business consolidation.  

"Strong executive leadership could revive antitrust enforcement in this country and begin, once again, to fight back against dominant market power and overwhelming political power," Warren said in the Capitol Visitor Center. "But we need something else too — and that’s a revival of the movement that created the antitrust laws in the first place."  

Warren, a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, said that federal regulators and the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission should be more aggressive about blocking mergers and acquisitions.  

She cited research indicating that conditional approvals have often failed to produce the desired outcome.  

[ Elizabeth Warren Endorses Hillary Clinton ]  

"The other problem with relying on conditions to offset the impact of bad mergers is that regulators who didn’t have the political chops to block the deal in the first place are very unlikely to force the companies to break up after the fact, even if the companies blow off the conditions," Warren said.  

"Even when companies meet conditions, like selling off some assets, they sometimes just turn around and buy back the same assets they originally sold off. Literally.  That actually happens."  

The former Harvard law professor cited examples including the merger of the supermarket chain Albertsons with Safeway.  

Warren was speaking at a forum sponsored by New America Foundation. In her speech, she praised a new report from the Center for American Progress detailing increased costs for consumers and reductions in innovation from large-scale consolidation.  

The report from CAP states that it would not require new laws to implement its proposals, which range from increased staffing in offices dealing with reviews of proposed mergers to expanding public disclosure about antitrust matters.  

The progressive think tank report said it also wants to see what sounds like significantly higher burdens of proof to be placed on companies that seek to merge.  

"Requiring merging parties to demonstrate how savings will be passed along to consumers will allow enforcement agencies to better understand and predict the consequences of a proposed merger and more effectively weigh the often imprecise trade offs that result from mergers," the report said.  

[ Elizabeth Warren and Tom Cotton Team Up? ] In Wednesday's speech, Warren also made a counter-intuitive argument for why conservatives should agree with her that antitrust enforcement needs to be tightened — because larger conglomerates without as much competition require more government regulation.  

"Competitive markets generate so many benefits on their own that the government’s only role in those markets should be simple and structural — prevent cheating, protect taxpayers, and maintain competition," Warren said.  

"Government intervention in concentrated markets inevitably becomes more and more complex and technocratic, as it attempts to impose complicated regulations in an effort to recreate the benefits of competitive markets."  

Contact Lesniewski at NielsLesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.

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