Attorney General Eric Holder told Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) that the Justice Department was not trying to regulate by consent decree in its merger review process, that its Comcast/NBCU merger review was "appropriately aggressive," and that the White House's courting of GE CEO Jeff Immelt did not and should not have played any part in that decisionmaking process.
That came in a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing in which Waters complained that Justice was providing "rubber stamp" approvals of mergers, a complaint Democrats levied against Justice under the Bush administration.
Waters focused on Comcast/NBCU, a merger she had numerous concerns and complaints about.
She said the antitrust division was becoming more regulator than legal enforcement agency. She pointed to the temporary conditions it has to enforce in Comcast/NBCU and other mergers, as opposed to simply blocking a deal or requiring divestiture when appropriate.
Holder said Justice was not trying to regulate via condition. "I think the antitrust division is tough where it finds violations of the antitrust laws," he said.
Holder didn't think the conditions placed on the Comcast/NBCU deal were insignificant, noting Justice is not going into a review trying to find a way to make a merger occur. "I think that we have been appropriately aggressive," he said.
Waters laid into Comcast and NBCU, saying that their contributions to nonprofit organizations garnered support from civil rights groups and churches, but that her concerns had been about access to independent programming, diversity in management, and other "significant and serious issues. "We got outplayed because they were able to roll in a lot of folks who had got contributions for their yearly conventions and churches."
She opined that maybe she should stop fighting mergers and "allow them to come in with "conditions that they think play well and you all just adopt these conditions and let these mergers go through."
Holder reiterated that the antitrust division was taking its enforcement responsibilities seriously.
Waters also suggested some possible conflict with the fact that at the same time Justice and the FCC
were considering the merger and she was trying to fight to get people to pay attention to how huge the merger was, the president was lining up GE's Jeffrey Immelt to chair his council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
Asked whether he knew that, Holder said he did now, though not at the time, but that in any event Justice would not and should not take that into consideration. Waters wanted to know why. He said that was not "consistent with the enforcement responsibilities of the antitrust division." When pressed by Waters why he did not think Justice should take into account a relationship between the administration and GE that could cloud their objectivity about the merger, Holder "cut to the quick." He said Justice acts independently of the White House or anything it may be doing.
"The justice department's determination in that or any other case is not affected by relationships that exist between the White House and the head of GE. That didn't come into play in the determination that the Justice Department made in that case. That is the bottom line."