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Deborah Majoras appears headed for confirmation as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission after surviving a barrage of criticism Wednesday regarding the agency’s handling of petroleum industry mergers. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., set the tone early in the confirmation hearing when he ripped the FTC’s approval of oil mergers during the Clinton and Bush administrations. “The Federal Trade Commission has sat on its hands and ignored oil company mergers,” Wyden said. “I intend to do everything I can as a member of the Senate to force a change at the top.” The criticism of the FTC’s oversight of oil-sector consolidation was expected. Wyden had placed a “hold” on Majoras’ nomination to protest what he alleges is the agency’s failure to aggressively protect consumers from higher gasoline prices. No Republicans joined Wyden’s attack. Majoras’ confirmation as FTC chief is paired with the nomination of Jon Leibowitz to replace Mozelle Thompson as one the agency’s five commissioners. Leibowitz is a former Judiciary Committee aide to Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis. He received ringing endorsements from Kohl and Sen. Mike DeWine, chairman of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. “He was tough on mergers but fair to the merging parties,” the Ohio Republican said. “If a merger did not pose a problem, he did his best to get out of the way and let the market work.” Majoras is a partner at law firm Jones Day in Washington who spent much of the last three years as a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust at the Justice Department. She has played no role in prior FTC oil industry merger investigations. But several senators were determined to use the confirmation to ensure that Majoras would be tough on the oil sector. “There are things going on out there that are very wrong,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “We need to hear from you how you are going to stand up to consumers.” In her opening statement, Majoras pledged to protect competition in all industries. “The free market is the foundation for our enviable economic system,” Majoras said. “Strong law enforcement in defense of consumers is imperative.” Wyden and Boxer both lashed out at the FTC’s handling of oil industry mergers, demanding that Majoras take action to protect consumers. One primary topic involved a refinery in Bakersfield, Calif., that Shell Oil Co. intends to close. The FTC had required Texaco Inc. to divest that refinery two years ago to resolve competitive problems with a merger. “Enough with the looking,” Boxer said. “Let’s get some action.” Majoras said closing the Bakersfield plant could pose competitive problems, and she vowed to investigate. “It is something that needs to be looked at very, very closely, and before it gets shut down,” Majoras said. Boxer said the FTC’s failure to act could imperil the agency’s nominations. “I may have to do some serious thinking before I add more people to this commission before the FTC takes action,” Boxer said. The threat, however, did not appear too severe. Majoras and Leibowitz both received bipartisan support. Majoras even got a plug from Leibowitz on the Bakersfield issue and on oil mergers. “I believe she is very committed to taking a very close look at this,” Leibowitz said. Responding to a question from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, Majoras said she would not try to resurrect the so-called merger clearance accord. That controversial agreement would have assigned responsibility for reviewing all media mergers to the Justice Department. She also vowed to continue the FTC’s record of protecting consumers from fraud. “One type of enforcement complements the other,” she said. The Senate Commerce Committee typically holds votes open for a week after a confirmation hearing. If the nominees are approved, the full Senate could confirm them by the end of next week. Copyright �2004 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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