The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could be facing big changes under President Trump.
Trump must fill three vacant commissioner seats and decide on a chairman — moves that Republicans hope could push the regulatory agency in a business-friendly direction.
Trump himself is no stranger to the FTC, having had his own run-ins with its regulators as a businessman.
In 1988, he agreed in a settlement with the FTC to pay a $750,000 fine for failing to disclose a stock purchase in a planned merger.
And in recent years, students of the now-defunct Trump University filed complaints with the FTC alleging the school misled and overcharged them. Last year, Trump agreed to a $25 million settlement to resolve a class-action lawsuit against the school.
The agency had an aggressive role under the Obama administration, taking on a number of corporate giants. Under former President Obama, the FTC sued Amazon for surprise in-app charges, fined Herbalife $200 million and successfully blocked a Staples-Office Depot deal worth $6.3 billion.
That aggressive stance could change under Trump.
High on the list of questions is how the agency would approach mergers under the new administration.
During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested he’d be in favor of tough reviews of corporate mergers. He said on the trail that he would have blocked the NBCUniversal-Comcast deal and a pending AT&T-Time Warner deal, claiming, “Deals like this destroy democracy.”
Critics, though, chalked that up to Trump’s feuds with CNN, a Time Warner network, and NBC over their
coverage of his campaign. And since taking office, he’s given no indication he’d want a crack down on mergers. Many of Trump’s transition team advisers have long called for easing reviews of corporate mergers.
But Trump’s statements are likely to put any actions toward the FTC — or decisions not to pursue action — under intense scrutiny.
Currently, the agency has an acting chairwoman, Maureen Ohlhausen, a Republican; and one Democratic commissioner, Terrell McSweeny.
In addition to deciding on a permanent chair, Trump must fill out the five-member commission with two more Republicans and another Democrat.
Those vacancies could give Trump enormous latitude to change the agency’s direction and has sparked speculation about how he’ll handle the FTC.
Many see Trump’s selection of Ohlhausen as acting chairwoman as a sign he’ll push to rein in the agency.
Ohlhausen, on the commission since 2012, has been a critic of the agency’s actions on mergers and advocated for a more restrained approach to regulating businesses.
In a speech to the Heritage Foundation in January shortly after she had been named acting chair, Ohlhausen said the strategy that had been pursued by Democrats had been too costly for the private sector.
“Although well intentioned, the majority Commission under President Obama at times pursued an antitrust agenda that disregarded sound economics,” Ohlhausen said. “It imposed unnecessary costs on businesses, and substituted rigorous analysis of competitive effects for conclusory assertions of ‘unfair competition.’ ”
In the last days of the Obama administration, Ohlhausen dissented on a number of agency actions, including an antitrust lawsuit against Qualcomm and a $20 million settlement with Uber over allegations that it exaggerated earnings claims.
She’s also applauded new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai for his efforts to roll back his agency’s internet privacy rules, which conservatives say are onerous and stray from the FTC’s own privacy framework.
But it’s unclear if Trump will tap Ohlhausen permanently for the post.
Some reports claim Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) is also a top contender for permanent chairman.
Reyes, though, has a reputation as a much more aggressive enforcer. He’s been lauded by some conservatives for his willingness to take on the Obama administration.
But many business groups have also pointed to his tough actions against Google.
Last year, Reyes wrote a letter to the FTC urging it to reopen an antitrust investigation into Google that had been closed in 2013. The move pleased conservatives wary of Google executives’ support for Democrats, but also worried others.
Ohlhausen, in contrast, had voted in favor of closing the probe against Google.
In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that many of Google’s rivals were pushing for Trump to tap Reyes, including Oracle CEO Safra Catz, an adviser to the Trump transition team.
Even though Trump has yet to tip his hand on these key posts, some Democrats say they are already worried the agency will be too favorable to business.
Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFCC: Over 12,000 callers couldn’t reach 911 during AT&T outage Live coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing Dems land few punches on Gorsuch MORE (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary’s antitrust panel, in a speech Monday said she is worried that the new administration will not be proactive in reviewing mergers through the FTC and the Justice Department.
“During the campaign, then-candidate Trump’s rhetoric echoed former President Teddy Roosevelt,” Klobuchar said at the Center for American Progress. “But now it looks like the president is speaking a different language.”