Something unusual happened on Capitol Hill last week: The Big Tech companies, their hundreds of lobbyists, and their well-funded network of policy groups took a loss. The House of Representatives successfully passed a small package of antitrust reform bills designed, in part, to limit gamesmanship and increase scrutiny on the largest, most powerful corporations in world history.
Now, they didn’t save the world or anything; the bills the House just passed are small, procedural, and bureaucratic in the grand scheme of things. But they are important.
One bill requires firms undergoing a merger to disclose whether they receive funding from the Chinese government. (Sounds smart enough.)
The second bill makes it easier for state antitrust enforcers to oversee the corporate giants among them by letting states have their antitrust cases heard in local courts, rather than forcing cases to be moved to distant jurisdictions. (Sounds like a pretty American idea.)
The third bill increases the fees billion-dollar companies must pay to have their mergers reviewed by antitrust enforcers at the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.
Those second and third bills have already passed the Senate. It’s nearly certain all three of these will become law.
Now, these bills are marginal, and they’re common sense, but at the same time, in Washington they’re neither of those things. For years, we’ve heard tough-sounding rhetoric from both parties about challenging our biggest tech megacorporations. They’ve been saying “break ’em up” since before Donald Trump even entered office. Now, Congress is finally rumbling into action.
Seriously: This is the first step they’ve taken. Google went public 18 years ago; Facebook hit a billion users 10 years ago; Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company in 2018, and its first $3 trillion company a few months ago, but this package of bills we just told you about represents the first affirmative acknowledgment by Congress that the power of the tech platforms must be reckoned with.
Yet in spite of the general agreement among Republicans that Big Tech firms pose an existential threat to our system of self-government, these bills were met with fierce and often acrimonious resistance from most of the GOP. Two hundred and seven Republicans voted on these bills, but only 39 of them, less than 1:5, voted in favor.
Conservatives both in and outside of Congress were likewise split. Opposition to the bills was led by congressional firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan, while conservative stalwarts like Congressmen Chip Roy, Ken Buck, Paul Gosar, and Jim Banks voted in favor. The Heritage Foundation endorsed the legislative package as a “requisite starting point to rebalance the relationship between American citizens and the Big Tech companies that abuse them.” American Principles Project backed the bills too.
So, what’s the issue?
At issue was the bill requiring billion-dollar companies to pay an increased fee to have their mergers reviewed. Mind you, the fees in question already exist — this bill simply increased them on large mergers. That partly reflects a recent and massive increase in merger activity within the U.S. economy.
Big Tech firms have contributed substantially to this uptick. Google and Facebook in particular have spent the last decade buying up smaller firms at a startling rate. In the past 10 years, Facebook has bought sixty smaller companies — about one every two months. Google has bought 133; that’s one company every 27 days.
That’s a lot of power flowing toward companies that already have more power than many countries. If we want to police the market to make sure these mergers are fair, then we could at least fund the people who do the policing.
This was a bridge too far for Jordan, however. He characterized the bill as funding the “same DOJ that raided President Trump’s home” and empowering “woke radical” Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission.
Now, it’s true that the increased fee funding could flow directly to the DOJ antitrust office, but that office had nothing to do with the raid on the Trump estate. The antitrust division is funded separately from the rest of the budgets at DOJ.
Meanwhile, the FTC will only gain access to additional funding if Congress decides to give it to them via the appropriations process. This is simply how the FTC is funded, and true regardless of whether or not the bill passed.
Sen. Mike Lee voted against Lina Khan’s confirmation and has been a constant critic of her, but he still called claims that this new anti-trust bill will give her and the FCC more money a “tech-funded lie.” As he pointed out in a joint statement with Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Cotton, “these bills improve antitrust enforcement without appropriating any more funds to President Biden’s out-of-control FTC.”
But while most have never heard of last week’s fight, these small bills represent something significantly more important than the bills themselves: These bills took the tiniest of steps against the gigantic power of Big Tech, but only a few dozen Republicans were willing to go even that far, and dozens more were intensely opposed.
That raises serious concerns about the House GOP’s commitment to taking on the tech threat in the next Congress, should they win a majority. Antitrust is a weapon that must be wielded carefully, but it’s a weapon that absolutely must be wielded.
Lax antitrust enforcement is what has allowed Big Tech firms to buy up their competition without scrutiny and amass a market dominance that makes them virtually untouchable. It’s how we got Amazon, whose $469 billion per year in revenue is higher than the GDP of thirty-four U.S. states.
Many conservatives have been confused, and they see antitrust as some kind of socialist plot. But it doesn’t have to be. Antitrust is the market-based law enforcement that acts as a bulwark against a heavier regulatory approach down the road. The only reason we have to debate far more intrusive interventions, like treating tech companies as utility monopolies, is because we failed to properly enforce antitrust in the first place years ago. Too few conservatives understand this.
But more broadly, this recent episode reveals that the right (or at least its elected leaders) don’t understand how business has changed and how America has changed. We see this every time Republicans are pushed to actually stand up to Big Business, Big Tech, Big Defense, or Big Anything.
Since 2016, Republicans have learned to talk a pretty good game. They rail against left-wing corporate activism and “woke capital.” They trash companies that proudly and visibly throw their weight around in the culture war. But at heart, these Republicans are still loath to take even the smallest steps against them. They’re happy to do nothing and quote Reagan to justify it.
The right will never be anti-big business, and that might be OK. The alternative to business, after all, is government. But the right must stop rushing like a battered wife to bail out the corporations who continue to wield their massive private power against ordinary Americans.
Let Big Finance try and beg Sen. Elizabeth Warren for a bailout if they want; and let Big Tech find allies outside the congressional Republicans they abuse daily. Why should Jim Jordan save Facebook from the FTC when Facebook both manipulates the market and hates men like Jim Jordan and all his voters?
The political right must be prepared to use the power of the government against bad market actors. Because that is what antitrust is: the rule of law in the market.
Even with a number of prominent congressional Republicans running defense for them, Big Tech lost this fight — and lost it publicly. That alone should be encouraging. But this victory was carried over with the explicit help of the Democrats, and with a majority of Republicans voting against it. Last week’s votes were a great day for The Realignment, but they are also a precedent that will only be carried forward into the next Congress if the GOP — as a whole — is ready to embrace the ideas they embody as actual policy.
The grounds are shifting; The Realignment is taking place. Republicans should be careful where they stand.
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