Senate Panel Advances Trump’s FTC Nominees

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By Alexei Alexis

The Senate Commerce Committee Feb. 28 unanimously approved President Donald Trump’s four nominees for the Federal Trade Commission that would help fill out the vacancy-filled competition regulator.

The nominees — Joseph Simons (R), Rohit Chopra (D), Noah Phillips (R), and Christine Wilson (R) — would fill commissioner slots. Simons is Trump’s pick to be FTC chairman.

The five-seat commission has been operating with three vacancies for more than a year. Its two sitting members — acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen and Democratic commissioner Terrell McSweeny — are expected to leave when the nominees are confirmed by the full Senate. Ohlhausen has been nominated to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Claims.

Senate Democrats are pressing Trump for a fifth Democratic nominee to round out the group. If the current package of nominees is confirmed without a fifth, the FTC would have a 3-1 Republican-Democrat ratio.

‘Two-Way Street’

Timing is uncertain for a floor vote, Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters. FTC nominees typically come to the Senate floor as a group under a bipartisan agreement with no senator objecting. The process takes only a few seconds of floor time, but it requires advance sign-off from Republicans and Democrats.

Thune indicated that Democrats haven’t agreed to move forward yet. The confirmation vote “depends entirely, I suppose, on the Democrats,” he said. “We’d love to move them to the floor and get them off the floor, but the Democrats have made it very hard to get even the most routine and non-controversial nominees through. But we need to get the FTC fully up and operating. They’re an important agency with an important mission, especially in this day and age.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the committee’s top Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg Law that it’s a “two-way” street in terms of how quickly the confirmation process will move.

“Instead of doing it piecemeal and largely only benefiting one party, we ought to be moving a complete package of FTC nominees,” Nelson said. “That’s called working bipartisanly.”

The Senate is still waiting on the White House to send a fifth nominee, Thune said.

There appears to be no objection to the FTC nominees themselves. The four appointees were approved by a voice vote in the committee.

Antitrust and Privacy

The FTC shares jurisdiction with the Justice Department over the enforcement of antitrust laws and is also responsible for addressing data security and other consumer protection issues.

The agency is currently pursuing an anti-monopoly lawsuit against Qualcomm Inc. On the consumer protection side, it’s investigating Equifax Inc.’s data security practices following a massive cyberattack against the credit-reporting company.

A key challenge facing the nominees, according to Thune, is the growing debate over the need for greater antitrust scrutiny of big technology companies like Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google.

“There are more and more questions with respect to how these big social media platforms fit into” the FTC’s competition mission, he said. “I suspect that will be something that they’ll be giving a good amount of attention to.”

At a Feb. 14 confirmation hearing, the nominees pledged to hold such companies accountable where there’s evidence of competition problems.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com

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