Challenging Anticompetitive Government Action, in Light of Constitutional Constraints on U.S. Antitrust Law

Alden Abbott —  15 December 2014

On December 11 I published a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum on this topic. I concluded that the federal courts have done a fairly good job in harmonizing antitrust with constitutionally-based federalism and First Amendment interests (petitioning, free speech, and religious freedom). Nevertheless, it must be admitted that these “constitutional constraints” somewhat limit the ability of antitrust to promote a procompetitive, pro-efficiency, pro-innovation, pro-consumer welfare agenda. Anticompetitive government action – the most pernicious and long-lasting affront to competition, because it is backed by the coercive power of the state – presents a particularly serious and widespread problem. How can antitrust and other legal principles be applied to further promote economic freedom and combat anticompetitive government action, in a manner consistent with the Constitution?

First, it may be possible to further tweak antitrust to apply a bit more broadly to governmental conduct, without upsetting the constitutional balance.

For instance, in 2013, in Phoebe Putney, the United States Supreme Court commendably held that general grants of corporate powers (such as the power to enter into contracts) to sub-state governmental entities are not in themselves “clear articulations” of a state policy to displace competition. Thus, in that case, a special purpose hospital authority granted general corporate powers by the State of Georgia could not evade federal antitrust scrutiny when it orchestrated a potentially anticompetitive hospital merger. In short, by requiring states to be specific when they authorize regulators to displace competition, Phoebe Putney makes it a bit more difficult to achieve anticompetitive results through routine state governmental processes.

But what about when a subsidiary state entity has been empowered to displace competition? Imposing a greater requirement on states to actively supervise decisions by self-interested state regulatory boards could enhance competition without severely undermining state prerogatives. Specifically, where members of a profession dominate a state-created board that oversees the profession, the risk of self-dealing and consumer harm is particularly high, and therefore the board’s actions should be subject to exacting scrutiny. In its imminent ruling on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) challenge to anticompetitive rules by the dentist-dominated North Carolina Dental Board of Dental Examiners (rules which forestall competition by storefront teeth whitening services), the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to require that states actively supervise the decisions of self-interested regulators as a prerequisite to federal antitrust immunity. At the very least, such a requirement would make states be more cautious before giving a blank check to potentially anticompetitive industry self-regulation. It could also raise the costs of obtaining special government favor, and shed needed light on rent-seekers’ efforts to achieve regulatory capture.

Unfortunately, though, a great deal of anticompetitive governmental activity, both state and federal, is and will remain beyond the bounds of federal antitrust prosecution. What can be done to curb such excesses, given the practical political difficulties in achieving far-reaching pro-competitive legislative and regulatory reforms? My December 11 Heritage Memo highlights a few possibilities rooted in constitutional economic liberties (see also the recent Heritage Foundation special report on economic liberty and the Constitution). One involves putting greater teeth into constitutional equal protection and due process analysis – say, by holding that pure protectionism standing alone does not pass muster as a “rational basis” justification for a facially anticompetitive law. Another approach is to deploy takings law (highlighted in a current challenge to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s raisin cartel) and the negative commerce clause in appropriate circumstances. The utility of these approaches, however, is substantially limited by case law.

Finally, competition advocacy – featuring public statements by competition agencies that describe the anticompetitive effects and welfare harm stemming from specific government regulations or proposed laws – remains a potentially fruitful means for highlighting the costs of anticompetitive government action and building a case for reform. As I have previously explained, the FTC has an established track record of competition advocacy filings, and the International Competition Network is encouraging the utilization of competition advocacy around the world. By shedding light on the specific baleful effects of government actions that undermine normal competitive processes, competition advocacy may over time help build a political case for reform that transcends the inherent limitations of antitrust and constitutional litigation.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.