Former Senate staffer reflects on state of antitrust
As he ends his first year in the private sector, Seth Bloom, former longtime General Counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, was in a reflective mood in talking about antitrust policy in Washington, in the past and in the future.
In an extended interview with FTC:WATCH, Bloom, who now runs his own District-based public policy and government relations firm, Bloom Strategic Counsel, PLLC, talked about his 14 years serving on the staff of the Senate committee, and what he sees on the horizon. He left the Senate in January and founded his own firm in March.
Bloom predicted that under the new chairwoman, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), consumer protection would be an area of heightened focus in the Senate.
“She’s very bright, and she’s very consumer-oriented,” he said, noting that he expects her to wield an increasing amount of power in the field as her expertise grows.
One advantage she has is that the antitrust subcommittee is less strictly partisan and ideological than other committees on Capitol Hill, where acrimony between the two warring political parties is intense. Bloom said members of the antitrust subcommittee have not historically viewed issues simply, through an ideological prism but in a more nuanced way.
The antitrust subcommittee “is an island of bipartisanship in a sea of partisanship,” Bloom said.
He said he expects the big issues ahead on the Hill to include a heightened debate over telecommunication spectrum; a new interest in railroads, reflecting a core concern of Sen. Klobuchar; and a continuing focus on the impact of health-care mergers on competition.
Bloom said he hopes the Senate will soon confirm Terrell McSweeny as the fifth commissioner at the FTC, so that the agency can get past its current awkward 2-to-2 split. “It’ll be a very good thing for the FTC when she gets confirmed,” he said.
Reflecting on his tenure at the Senate, Bloom was particularly proud of his work supporting Sen. Herb Kohl’s leadership in opposing the AT & T merger with T-Mobile, and said the facts as they have emerged since have shown the Justice Department was correct in its decision to challenge the merger.
“He really stood up for competition,” Bloom said, calling the Justice Department’s decision to challenge the merger a “triumph of antitrust enforcement.”
Bloom laughingly recalled that industry analysts and commentators supporting the merger had warned that T-Mobile would disintegrate if the merger were not approved. “The line they were peddling was that T-Mobile could not stand on its own,” Bloom said. In fact, T-Mobile has emerged stronger, he said.
Sen. Kohl (D-Wisc.) began his questioning of the merger with a strongly-worded letter of concern to the Justice Department, Bloom said, adding that he thinks that is a strategy he thinks Sen. Klobuchar will be employing as well. He said letters of that kind frequently signal that Congress is watching an issue carefully.
He has built an impressive client list in the past year, including Microsoft, Sprint, Masimo and JNK Securities, building on a base of expertise formed at the Senate that took him into a wide array of businesses.
When he was working at the Senate, Bloom participated in the investigation into the AOL/Time Warner merger in 2000, the Comcast/NBC merger in 2010 and the AT&T/T-Mobile merger in 2011. He was also the senior staffer investigating allegations that Google’s Internet search functions were anticompetitive. He also played a role in investigations in the telecom, high tech, media, health care, aviation, energy and agriculture industries.
Bloom worked in the DOJ’s antitrust section before joining the antitrust subcommittee. From that perspective, and also from his more recent perch in the Senate, Bloom echoed concerns being expressed around Washington about the Justice Department’s decision to permit the merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways to go forward, calling it a “big disappointment.”
He said the remediation plan did not appear to resolve the issues raised in the Justice Department’s original complaint. And he said he considered the behavior of Attorney General Eric Holder in announcing he wanted to settle the case, an odd step that undercut Bill Baer, chief of the antitrust division, who had publicly indicated his firm intention to litigate if he could not negotiate a good settlement.
“It’s very unusual for an AG to say he wants to settle a case,” Bloom said.