FTC sacrifices the rule of law for more flexibility; Commissioner Ohlhausen wisely dissents

Geoffrey Manne —  1 August 2012

On July 31 the FTC voted to withdraw its 2003 Policy Statement on Monetary Remedies in Competition Cases.  Commissioner Ohlhausen issued her first dissent since joining the Commission, and points out the folly and the danger in the Commission’s withdrawal of its Policy Statement.

The Commission supports its action by citing “legal thinking” in favor of heightened monetary penalties and the Policy Statement’s role in dissuading the Commission from following this thinking:

It has been our experience that the Policy Statement has chilled the pursuit of monetary remedies in the years since the statement’s issuance. At a time when Supreme Court jurisprudence has increased burdens on plaintiffs, and legal thinking has begun to encourage greater seeking of disgorgement, the FTC has sought monetary equitable remedies in only two competition cases since we issued the Policy Statement in 2003.

In this case, “legal thinking” apparently amounts to a single 2009 article by Einer Elhague.  But it turns out Einer doesn’t represent the entire current of legal thinking on this issue.  As it happens, Josh Wright and Judge Ginsburg looked at the evidence in 2010 and found no evidence of increased deterrence (of price fixing) from larger fines:

If the best way to deter price-fixing is to increase fines, then we should expect the number of cartel cases to decrease as fines increase. At this point, however, we do not have any evidence that a still-higher corporate fine would deter price-fixing more effectively. It may simply be that corporate fines are misdirected, so that increasing the severity of sanctions along this margin is at best irrelevant and might counter-productively impose costs upon consumers in the form of higher prices as firms pass on increased monitoring and compliance expenditures.

Commissioner Ohlhausen points out in her dissent that there is no support for the claim that the Policy Statement has led to sub-optimal deterrence and quite sensibly finds no reason for the Commission to withdraw the Policy Statement.  But even more importantly Commissioner Ohlhausen worries about what the Commission’s decision here might portend:

The guidance in the Policy Statement will be replaced by this view: “[T]he Commission withdraws the Policy Statement and will rely instead upon existing law, which provides sufficient guidance on the use of monetary equitable remedies.”  This position could be used to justify a decision to refrain from issuing any guidance whatsoever about how this agency will interpret and exercise its statutory authority on any issue. It also runs counter to the goal of transparency, which is an important factor in ensuring ongoing support for the agency’s mission and activities. In essence, we are moving from clear guidance on disgorgement to virtually no guidance on this important policy issue.

An excellent point.  If the standard for the FTC issuing policy statements is the sufficiency of the guidance provided by existing law, then arguably the FTC need not offer any guidance whatever.

But as we careen toward a more and more active role on the part of the FTC in regulating the collection, use and dissemination of data (i.e., “privacy”), this sets an ominous precedent.  Already the Commission has managed to side-step the courts in establishing its policies on this issue by, well, never going to court.  As Berin Szoka noted in recent Congressional testimony:

The problem with the unfairness doctrine is that the FTC has never had to defend its application to privacy in court, nor been forced to prove harm is substantial and outweighs benefits.

This has lead Berin and others to suggest — and the chorus will only grow louder — that the FTC clarify the basis for its enforcement decisions and offer clear guidance on its interpretation of the unfairness and deception standards it applies under the rubric of protecting privacy.  Unfortunately, the Commission’s reasoning in this action suggests it might well not see fit to offer any such guidance.

Geoffrey Manne

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  1. FTC sacrifices the rule of law for more flexibility; Commissioner Ohlhausen wisely dissents - August 2, 2012

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