When it takes control on Thursday, the new House Democratic majority plans on serious oversight of corporate monopolies and the lax enforcement from federal antitrust agencies. It will target tech giants like Google and Facebook and health insurers Aetna, Cigna, Humana and Anthem while making sure Federal Trade Commission regulators are doing their job.
The Dems’ new push will focus on three areas: consolidation of health care markets driving up prices for consumers, the monopolization of big tech platforms and anti-competitive labor abuses like non-compete agreements and wage fixing. Hearings on these issues could even result in the first major rewrite of antitrust law since the 1950s.
This will be a major shift in policy in an area of vital economic importance for the country. Corporate consolidation has occurred across almost every industry in the United States over the past 40 years, from airlines to tech to weapons manufacturers to beer to pharmaceuticals to, yes, even ski lodges. The result has been radically increased economic and political inequality writ large in society that is constraining the economy.
Democrats increasingly see antitrust policy in the same vein that they have come to view campaign finance reform ― a fundamental structural problem underlying the many issues of skyrocketing health care costs, lower wages, lack of labor mobility, rising prices, fewer local businesses and less political power. A 2018 poll by the anti-monopoly group Open Markets Institute found 76 percent of respondents believed “big corporations have too much power over your family and your community.”
“There’s been a growing recognition that many of the central concerns of the Democratic Party, namely on inequality and regional inequality, are being driven by concentration and a lack of antitrust enforcement,” Zach Freed, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an anti-monopoly nonprofit, said.
Leading the charge on antitrust for Democrats is Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) who will take the helm of the antitrust subcommittee within the House Judiciary Committee in January.
Cicilline has emerged as an aggressive voice calling for a break with the antitrust status quo that has turned a blind eye to the extreme consolidation across the economy. He helped launch a congressional antitrust caucus and is the lead sponsor of key antitrust reform bills that range from giving the news media more power to organize against digital ad monopolies like Google and Facebook to modernizing the antitrust laws passed during the age of Teddy Roosevelt.
He intends to host hearings to build a record and obtain analysis from experts and to craft legislation to rein in consolidation and anti-competitive behavior in health care markets, the big tech platforms and labor contracts. He will also plan aggressive oversight of the Federal Trade Commission, the main antitrust regulator that has enabled extreme corporate consolidation over the past 40 years thanks to the adoption of pro-monopoly economic theories by lawyers and economists of both political parties.
Proponents of aggressive antitrust enforcement are excited about Cicilline’s rise to the chairman’s seat on the antitrust panel.
“They’ve been doing a great job of elevating the issue of antitrust ― scrutinizing the enforcement of the oversight agency for the first time in a long time,” Marshall Steinbaum, fellow at the progressive Roosevelt Institute, said about Cicilline and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee.
“It’s gonna be great,” Matt Stoller, fellow at Open Markets Institute, said. “Man, we’re going to kick some ass.”
Cicilline may be a lawyer, but he didn’t come to Congress with expertise in antitrust. After he became ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee, he noticed how the consolidation problems that he was investigating in his oversight role overlapped with the broader inequality issues that Democrats were trying to tackle.
“As I began to do this work I really came to realize that this fundamental question of, ‘How do we get the economy working again for everyone in this country so that working people have a fighting chance to get ahead?’ is really connected to this very serious concentration of economic power, and concentration of political power, and it’s getting worse rather than getting better,” Cicilline said.
Cicilline was one of a number of members who pushed for the inclusion of strong antitrust principles in the Democratic Party’s midterm policy platform. That “Better Deal” platform included very strong language calling for a new antitrust consensus and a focus on breaking up consolidated markets and giving workers more power and more pay.
Although the Democrats’ Better Deal policy program mentioned consolidation in markets from oil and gas to eyeglasses, it notably left out the problem of big tech monopolies. Cicilline, however, is one of Silicon Valley’s biggest critics on Capitol Hill. He told Facebook that it “cannot be trusted to regulate itself” and got Google CEO Sundar Pichai to admit that Google was considering launching a search engine in China.
He intends on hosting more hearings with tech CEOs and technologists who analyze competition on digital platforms to develop a better understanding of how these tech trusts dominate markets and crush competition. This will result in legislation that could enable users to port their data from one social platform to another or mandate the platforms become interoperable with each other and future competitors.
Congressional Democrats are supportive of this push for more antitrust oversight. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told antitrust regulators at an oversight hearing in December that Congress had abdicated its role for too long by allowing “pro-big business administrations,” both Republican and Democratic, to erode antitrust laws.
“The decline in enforcement over the last several decades has also been an economic catastrophe for millions of workers,” Nadler said.
There is even interest in stronger antitrust oversight from Republicans on the Judiciary committee. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the next ranking member on the committee, has taken umbrage at consolidation in the pharmacy benefit manager market. He introduced legislation to shine a light on the anti-competitive practices in the industry to uncover how they are driving up consumer costs for drugs.
But where the Republican leadership was not interested in prioritizing these issues in the last Congress, the Democratic Party leadership is insistent on pursuing them.
“What has been really remarkable is there has been a really significant kind of renewal of interest in antitrust in the Congress,” Cicilline observes. “I think there is sort of a reawakening of the kind of understanding the critical impact that competition and antitrust enforcement has in getting the economy to work right.”