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Arguing that business consolidation has gone too far, U.S. Rep. David Minge launched a campaign Tuesday for a bill that would expand the antitrust laws, reform the pre-merger notification system, and provide greater scrutiny for agribusiness combinations. Speaking on the lawn outside the U.S. Capitol, the Minnesota democrat said mergers have left this country with too few seed companies, supermarkets, airlines, railroads and financial services firms. “Concentration in each sector seems to propel people in another sector to concentrate,” Minge said. His solution is H.R. 4321, which received some general support at a House Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday. Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde praised Minge’s commitment to antitrust enforcement. Yet Hyde (R-Ill.) did not commit to vote out the bill this year, a clear sign that the legislation will be left to the next Congress to debate. Minge conceded that the bill would be unlikely to pass before Congress adjourns in October. But he said Tuesday’s hearing was critical for setting up the legislation for a vote early next year. The National Association of Manufacturers, which was not invited to testify, released a letter sharply critical of the bill. “H.R. 4321 would create mischief, redundancy and impose bad antitrust policy,” NAM senior vice president Michael Baroody wrote. “NAM strongly opposes any further consideration of this legislation.” The Minge bill could mean the death of the efficiency defense in antitrust cases, which holds that some anticompetitive deals may be approved if economic efficiencies are large enough and are passed along to consumers. Concerns about the future of the efficiency defense stemmed from Minge’s prepared testimony, when he said the bill is intended to “preclude combinations that result in a single firm having a market share that accords excessive economies of scale or market dominance which significantly impedes the continuation or development of competition or of competitive market conditions.” The measure also specifies that the Sherman and Clayton acts protect sellers and wholesale purchasers in addition to consumers. It would repeal the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 Illinois Brick decision, which held that consumers have no right to sue companies directly for antitrust violations. The bill would allow such consumer actions. It also is one of about a half dozen vehicles that would overhaul the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 by imposing a sliding fee scale that starts at $25,000 for deals of less than $100 million, $50,000 for those between $100 million and $250 million, $100,000 for between $250 million and $1 billion and $150,000 for above $1 billion. It also would exempt deals below $45 million from the notification law, up from the current $15 million threshold. Finally, the bill would create a commission to study agribusiness mergers, establish a position in the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division to coordinate farm issues, and raise to $100 million from $10 million the criminal fine for antitrust violations. American Antitrust Institute President Albert Foer said the legislation is warranted. “We are not getting the job done sufficiently when it comes to concentration,” said Foer, whose group advocates for antitrust enforcement. Copyright (c)2000 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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