Antitrust Settlements: The Culture of Consent


The beginning of a shift toward a more regulatory and less litigation-oriented regime of antitrust enforcement was observable by the mid-1990s, if not earlier. The transition toward this more bureaucratic approach by antitrust enforcement agencies is the subject of our analysis. Consent decrees create potential for an enforcement agency to extract from parties under investigation commitments well beyond what the agency could obtain in litigation—commitments that may impair rather than improve competition and thereby harm consumers. The consequences of such consent decrees, that is, are borne not only by the parties that are subject to them, but also by consumers and by non-parties who glean the agency’s enforcement position from the terms of those decrees. Moreover, consent decrees signal to foreign competition authorities that such commitments are appropriate and, consequently, the FTC and the Division lose the ability they might otherwise have to convince other agencies to minimize their own departures from the appropriate standard. We proffer that the culture of consent at antitrust agencies both in the United States and abroad has had an untoward effect upon the agencies’ selection of cases to bring and, more certainly, upon the remedies the agencies obtain in settlement agreements.