The Residential Library

The sometimes demented, frequently irreverent, and occasionally stupid musings of Ron Hargrove

A Cruel Parody of Antitrust Enforcement

The Justice Department is roughing up Mr. Trump’s political enemies and threatening the environment.

By the New York Times Editorial Board  [September 6, 2019]

President Trump’s Justice Department — for it is increasingly clear that the department has been reduced to an arm of the White House — has opened an antitrust investigation of four auto companies that had the temerity to defy the president by voluntarily agreeing to reduce auto emissions below the level required by current federal law.

The investigation is an act of bullying, plain and simple: a nakedly political abuse of authority.

The department is supposed to prevent companies from acting in their own interest at the expense of the public. The four automakers, by contrast, are acting in the public interest.

That the government of the United States would fight to loosen emissions standards in the face of the growing threat posed by climate change also boggles the mind. Not content to fiddle while the planet burns, Mr. Trump is fanning the flames.

Ford, BMW North America, Volkswagen Group of America and Honda struck a deal with the State of California in July. They agreed to reach an average fuel efficiency standard of at least 51 miles per gallon by 2026. That falls short of an Obama administration rule that would have required average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. But it is certainly better than the goal of 37 miles per gallon favored by the Trump administration.

Mr. Trump reacted to the deal with predictable fury. The administration denounced it as a “P.R. stunt,” and threatened to end California’s longstanding authority to set its own tougher fuel efficiency standards — an attempt that would surely end up in court.

Now the administration has gone further, firing a shot across the bows of the automakers that signed the deal, and of those that might. The Times reported the German government warned Mercedes-Benz not to join the California agreement after learning of the federal investigation.

Antitrust law grants the government broad authority to police anticompetitive practices, and the Justice Department has dressed up its actions with the fig leaf that the companies may have colluded by collectively agreeing to the tougher standards, which could result in higher prices for new cars and light trucks.

The investigation is particularly striking because the department has shown little interest in preventing corporations from engaging in actual anticompetitive behavior. This summer, for example, the department blessed T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, a deal likely to harm mobile phone consumers and workers, and to impede innovation.

If the Justice Department wants to get serious about antitrust enforcement, there are plenty of places to get started. This investigation is an embarrassment. It might as well wheel out the statue of Lady Justice and replace it with a bronze marionette.


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