WASHINGTON — Battle lines began forming Monday over the Reagan Administration's plan to streamline the nation's antitrust laws as a key Democratic senator unveiled a counterproposal that would preserve the laws and broaden regulatory guidelines for corporate mergers.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), denouncing Administration policies as producing "the most permissive antitrust climate in this century," told a news conference that his measure would include more and stiffer penalties for antitrust violations, intensified enforcement and expanded merger guidelines.
In contrast, President Reagan earlier this month approved a sweeping overhaul of antitrust laws that would ease many provisions as a way to help embattled U.S. industries keep up with foreign competitors.
The Administration package would suspend merger restrictions for five years to help industries hurt by imports, eliminate treble damages as a penalty in cases where competition is not threatened and require a clear-cut threat to competition as the test for challenging corporate mergers and takeovers.
An Uphill Battle
Metzenbaum conceded that obtaining congressional approval for his bill "would be an uphill battle"--and, even if the measure passes, it almost certainly would face a presidential veto. But he said he thinks that opponents of the Administration package should have a concrete counterproposal rather than "just be naysayers."
The Administration plan, widely discussed in recent weeks at the Commerce and Justice departments but not yet presented to Congress, has already been rejected by many on Capitol Hill, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.).
The main champions of the plan, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and Assistant Atty. Gen. Douglas Ginsburg, argue that the 72-year-old antitrust structure has become obsolete in an economy whose marketplace is international and that it has been used to shield entrenched management and inefficient industries from the rigors of global competition.
Baldrige hopes to help U.S. industries compete internationally by merging some domestic operations. Ginsburg has sought to discourage antitrust lawsuits whose effect is to curtail efficiency and raise prices.
But Metzenbaum defended the antitrust status quo on the ground that it benefits consumers and workers alike by keeping declining plant facilities in operation.
"With lax antitrust enforcement, you get higher prices," he said. "You get plants closed. You get Youngstown (Ohio) Sheet & Tube shut down. This is a very pro-business Administration. It has been in bed with the business community since the beginning."