On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee began debate and markup of five antitrust bills that promise to curb the power of “dominant platforms,” defined as firms valued at over $600 billion, a category that includes major corporations such as Amazon.
While the bills passed the Senate with bipartisan support, they are failing to draw similar support among the House GOP whose criticisms range from concerns about overhauling antitrust law to conspiracy theories about the bills being a Trojan Horse to empower the “radical left.”
Jim Jordan, a Republican who was one of former President Trump’s staunchest allies and the current ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, has been the loudest critical voice of the antitrust bills. His criticisms so far suggest that he, and the party more generally, are not taking antitrust reform seriously, however.
Take the Fox News op-ed he co-authored titled “Big Tech merged with Big Government–radical Dems' bills would transform US,” which summarized his opposition on the grounds that the bills are part of a secret authoritarian agenda by the “woke overlords in the Biden administration” and the “radical left” to “fundamentally transform America.” His slam-dunk example of this dastardly agenda to change America’s core? He points out that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter has advocated to “prioritize investigations that address systemic racism.”
Jordan's op-ed not only tries to argue that the bills are dangerous because they don't center on "anti-conservative bias and censorship,” but claims that an empowered FTC would operate like some kind of antifa hydra from the nightmares of a right-wing cartoonist.
"The scariest bills set up secret committees at the Federal Trade Commission that would manage data practices of the largest tech companies," Jordan wrote. "These committees would include members of the targeted companies (i.e. Google, Facebook), their competitors, a "competition or privacy advocacy organization" (i.e. groups like Planned Parenthood), and academics (think Elizabeth Warren acolytes)."
In his opening statement on Wednesday, Jordan raised the same concerns while dabbling further in conspiracy theories. He warned that the bills' advocates were "Soros-backed individuals" and "impeachment managers" who would sooner let Iran's Ayatollah stay on Twitter than let former President Donald Trump back. Jordan also tried to suggest it was FTC chair Lina Khan who wrote the antitrust bills—not the bipartisan subcommittee which actually wrote them—as part of a Democrat bid to radically empower the FTC and restructure the entire American economy.
"The Federal Trade Commission: run by Biden Democrats who want to fix systemic racism, set up special government committees of whatever size they want. Technical committees made up of your competitors, advocacy groups, and academics,” Jordan said. “In other words, people who want your business to fail, Soros-backed individuals, and someone like Senator Warren.”
Jordan closed his statement reiterating his concern that he sees this bill as “Big Tech working together with Big Government” and failing to address breakups or censorship, so the GOP will be introducing their own amendments that do.
Jordan’s comments reflect how the GOP, so far, is not really engaging with the laws being considered or the real issues at play in the bills considering dry things like merger fees that companies pay.
The American Innovation Act would prohibit dominant platforms from discriminatory conduct, such as self-preferencing their services in search results over those of competitors. The Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act would require interoperability and data portability, meaning businesses and users could more easily switch between platforms. The Ending Platform Monopolies Act would ban dominant platforms from leveraging their market power in multiple industries to undermine competitors whether by demanding businesses buy services to use a platform or by owning multiple business lines that pose conflicts of interest (for example, Amazon selling AmazonBasics products on its e-commerce platform used by third-party vendors would likely be prohibited). The State Antitrust Enforcement Act would let a state attorney general filing an antitrust suit under federal laws to choose a court they prefer instead of letting defendants make the choice.
Finally, the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act would simply increase fees for mergers valued at over $1 billion while lowering them for those valued below $500,000, allowing the DOJ and FTC more funds to operate with. The State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act would allow a state attorney general filing antitrust suits under federal law to take up cases in courts preferred by them, not the defendant (the firm accused of violating antitrust law).
The first GOP amendment—introduced by Chip Roy, a Republican representative from Texas—to the first bill up for debate, the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, reflected Jordan’s conspiracy obsession. Roy’s amendment was solely concerned with prohibiting any merger fees from funding Critical Race Theory, a decades old legal analysis framework that has recently become the center of a hysterical panic on the right. The amendment failed but still got 19 “yes” votes.
Scott Fitzgerald, a Wisconsin Republican, proposed a failed amendment that would prohibit funding being used for anything besides enforcement activities and also got 19 “yes” votes. Mike Johnson, a Republican representative from Louisiana, proposed an amendment that would gut the FTC even further by transferring its enforcement power to the DOJ but it was removed before a vote.
Not all Republicans are putting forth nonsense for what should be a straightforward bill. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee, defended the 18 month investigation that spawned the House antitrust report and the five bills up for debate. Buck insisted the bill would give the FTC and DOJ "the tools they need to restore the free market, incentivize innovations, and give small businesses a fair shot against oligarchs like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg." Victoria Spartz, a Indiana Republican, also spoke at length to address how the bills were strictly concerned with raising fees, not restructuring the American economy or enforcement regimes, and there would be safeguards and transparency in place to ensure so.
And yet, the nonsensical, conspiracy-laden criticisms and amendments overshadow all of that. Consider that only four Republicans ended up voting to approve the bill in a 29-12 vote, or look at how much energy was spent fear mongering about the FTC—an agency essentially set up to fail because it is chronically underfunded, understaffed, and thus fundamentally unable to keep track of antitrust violations let alone properly enforce the laws.
That politicians appear largely uninterested in antitrust reform shouldn't come as a surprise, despite all the recent grandstanding about Big Tech. Many Republicans and Democrats, after all, receive money from monopolies. Jordan himself has received donations from Google for every campaign of his since 2012. Between 1989 and 2017, Republicans received 55 percent of the $101 million donated by telecom giants and monopolies to members of Congress and leadership PACs. Telecom companies are behemoths that shape and control internet access, cultural production, and media—yet there seems to be relatively little interest in breaking them up among the GOP (and Democrats) despite the clear deleterious effects of their monopolies on quality of and access to internet and phone service.
The GOP’s generally narrow interest in antitrust reform and the conspiratorial criticisms levied against various antitrust bills are also coming to us at the same time as a horde of groups funded by tech companies are attempting to delay and deter Congress from passing the legislation, warning the bills will hurt innovation and our ability to compete with China.
Debate is expected to continue until all the bills are voted on sometime on Thursday, after which the House can finally schedule a vote on the antitrust bills.