On January 24, 2017, President Donald Trump designated Maureen Ohlhausen as acting chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission. Ohlhausen, a Republican, has been serving as an FTC commissioner since 2012 and is a noted critic of government regulation. Her appointment was a surprise to no one, but is notable as a departure from President Trump's recent appointment of industry leaders from beyond the beltway. Ohlhausen replaces Edith Ramirez, a Democrat, who announced her resignation earlier this month. After Ramirez's departure in February, the Commission will have only two commissioners, Ohlhausen and Democrat Terrell McSweeny. President Trump will then likely fill the remaining seats to form a Republican majority.
On news of her appointment, Ohlhausen commented "I am deeply honored that President Trump has asked me to serve as Acting Chairman of the FTC and to preserve America's true engine of prosperity: a free, honest, and competitive marketplace." She added, "I will work to protect all consumers from fraud, deception and unfair practices."
Ohlhausen's appointment is the culmination of almost 15 years of service at the Commission over two tours, including four years as director of the agency's Office of Policy Planning. She has been a vocal critic of many FTC actions, often dissenting on the Commission's issuance of complaints and approval of settlements that lacked, in her view, sufficient evidence to support agency action. Her most notable dissents were in the recent $20 million settlement with Uber, the agency's suit against Qualcomm for allegedly using market power to restrain trade in the semiconductor market and its complaint against D-Link for failing to use reasonable data security practices to protect those who use the company's wireless router and camera products.
Signaling her hands-off approach to regulation reminiscent of prior Republican chairs, Ohlhausen tweeted on the day of her appointment, "So honored @POTUS chose me as acting FTC Chairman. I will protect consumers, promote competition & econ liberty; & shrink regulatory burden." Further cueing her faith in a free marketplace is her frequent use of the hashtag "#RegulatoryHumility" in her tweets.
In addition to her skepticism of the FTC's regulatory activities, Ohlhausen has also criticized the Federal Communications Commission, particularly with regard to its attempt to regulate privacy and security on the Internet, an area she believes is best served by the FTC, and its approach to net neutrality, a position she shares with fellow Republican Ajit Pai, the newly appointed Chair of the FCC. On the day of her appointment, she tweeted, "@AjitPaiFCC knows markets can protect #NetNeutrality values w/o the drag of gov regs. I agree! My new paper: ftc.gov/public-statement."
News of Ohlhausen's appointment had an immediate impact on companies with merger applications before the Commission. Investor's Business Daily reported that shares of Rite Aid and Walgreen's fluctuated on news of the appointment, which bolstered the possibility that a Republican majority Commission would approve the merger of the two drug store chains.
Ohlhausen's current appointment runs until September 2018 and she will need not be re-nominated and approved by Congress.
Why it matters: With a Republican now at the helm of the FTC and the likelihood that two additional like-minded commissioners will join her, the FTC's aggressive enforcement posture over the past eight years—particularly with respect to data security—will presumably abate. Chairwoman Ohlhausen is considered by many to be a thoughtful and smart regulator who applies a reasoned approach to matters. But as she strongly believes in the free market and is skeptical of the government's role in reigning in commerce, she will likely head a Commission that is not inclined to aggressively pursue cases that do not present real harm to consumers or appear to pose a significant threat to the marketplace.