Every Democratic senator currently running for president is opposed to the $26 billion merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) signed a letter from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) calling on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to reject the merger between the third- and fourth-largest mobile service provider in the United States.
The proposed merger would leave Americans with just three wireless carriers with all the incentives to squeeze consumers for more money through increased prices and unnecessary fees, the letter argues. If approved, the merger would create a “country-club market” in which Verizon, AT&T and the new T-Mobile/Sprint could “divide the market, and collect ever-rising monthly rents from wireless subscribers with few real alternatives,” according to the letter. (Verizon owns HuffPost.)
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — who did not sign the letter — “agrees with concerns expressed in the letter and hopes the Department of Justice rejects the proposed merger,” according to a statement from Chris Harris, a spokesman for her Senate office.
Additionally, two potential but yet-unannounced Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also signed the Blumenthal letter.
These Democratic senators have little power to stop the Trump administration from approving the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Approval authority ultimately rests with the FCC and the Department of Justice.
Yet their stated opposition does show that the party’s leading lights feel that it is important to take anti-monopoly stances in their pursuit of the presidency.
The Democratic Party has increasingly embraced anti-monopoly and antitrust policies since the 2016 election. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) labeled antitrust policy as one of the key planks in the party’s new platform in a 2017 New York Times op-ed. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the new head of the House antitrust subcommittee, has promised to tackle head-on issues of consolidation in the pharmaceutical, hospital and tech industries.
In the recent past, Democrats have been more attentive to consolidation concerns in the telecommunications industry than in other sectors in which they allowed countless mergers during the presidency of Barack Obama. That could be due to the extreme consolidation already existing in this space. There are currently only four major mobile service providers ― Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.
The Obama administration sued to block AT&T from purchasing T-Mobile in 2011 to prevent further consolidation that could raise prices and cost jobs. Then the Obama-era FCC prevented T-Mobile and Sprint from merging in 2014.
The Democratic Party has increasingly embraced anti-monopoly and antitrust policies since the 2016 election.
Those same concerns exist in this second attempted merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. The Communications Workers of America argues that the merger will cost 30,000 jobs. Other telecommunications law experts argue that the merger will result in higher prices for U.S. consumers, who already pay among the highest prices for mobile service in the world. Rural mobile service advocates argued that the merger will dramatically increase costs for people living in areas with poor mobile service coverage and do little to improve that coverage.
“The Democratic 2020 candidates are rightfully expressing concerns and opposition to the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, but the negative effects and potential damage of the merger should not be a partisan issue,” said Shane Larson, director of legislation, politics and international affairs at the Communications Workers of America.
The Democratic candidates may be opposed to the merger, but an anti-monopoly spirit has not taken over the party entirely.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a past critic of the telecommunications industry, declared her support for the merger at a congressional committee hearing on Wednesday. The country’s telecommunications market is already dominated by the duopoly of Verizon and AT&T, she said. So, instead of breaking up these monopolies, T-Mobile and Sprint should be allowed to merge to create a third giant to take the Big Two on, she argued.
The ultimate decision on this and other mergers rests with executive branch regulatory agencies. That’s why it will matter who wins the White House, what their positions on antitrust issues are, and who they signal they will appoint to run those agencies. The unified opposition to this merger is just one sign of many to look for during the primaries to judge how far Democrats will go in their newfound embrace of antitrust issues if they win power in the 2020 elections.