By Stefan Fatsis
NEW YORK _ The Justice Department takes over an antitrust
probe of Microsoft Corp. AT T, split up by antitrust regulators
in 1982, plans to merge with the nation's biggest cellular
American Airlines and Wal-Mart are tangled in unfair pricing
lawsuits. Baseball's 71-year-old antitrust exemption is
challenged in court. Health care reform raises questions about
Suddenly, antitrust is news.
Lawyers say the rash of recent cases is mostly coincidence.
But it comes as the Clinton administration promises stricter
enforcement of laws designed to promote free competition after 12
years of laissez-faire Republican rule.
"I think you're in a period of transition between the virtual
non-enforcement of the Reagan years and what will certainly be
much more active government regulation in the Clinton years,"
said Robert Pitofsky, a professor at Georgetown University Law
"These may be very early signs but they're reliable signs," he
Among the strongest was a speech earlier this month to the
American Bar Association by Clinton's new antitrust chief, Anne
K. Bingaman, who promised to re-energize antitrust enforcement.
Bingaman, an assistant attorney general, has indicated the
government will chart a new antitrust course in areas such as
mergers, business conduct, price-fixing and foreign compliance
with U.S. antitrust laws.
The Justice Department has acted already: taking over an
investigation of Microsoft, the computer software powerhouse, and
eliminating Reagan-era guidelines that allowed manufacturers to
fix prices with distributors.
First, the department in July requested documents about
Microsoft from the Federal Trade Commission, which shares
antitrust oversight. The FTC examined alleged unfair business
practices at Microsoft for three years but deadlocked over
whether to sue the company.
Second, the department rescinded 1985 rules on "vertical
pricing" that made it easy for suppliers to impose minimum retail
prices, hurting discounters in industries such as consumer
electronics and apparel. The government has brought just two
price-fixing cases since 1980.
Any merger enforcement activity would mark a significant shift
from the Reagan-Bush era, which saw the greatest rate of
corporate combinations since the 19th century and what lawyers
describe as lax enforcement. Several cases could receive close
American Telephone Telegraph Co.'s planned $12.6 billion
acquisition of McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. could challenge
the regional Bell companies' local telephone business. AT T's
monopoly over local and longdistance was broken up by the
government in 1982.
"We don't believe that the merger with McCaw has any antitrust
implications," AT T spokesman Walter Murphy said.
Mattel Inc. …