Biden’s Antitrust Police Would Crack Down on Mergers, Ally Says

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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would likely pursue an aggressive antitrust policy to rein in dominant companies and crack down on mergers that have contributed to concentration in many markets, said a House ally leading a probe of technology giants.

Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, told Bloomberg in an interview Wednesday that Biden wouldn’t favor the “corporate mega-mergers that have resulted in this terrible imbalance in our economy,” adding that “everything he’s done in his life makes me believe that he will be a strong advocate for real competition policy.”

Biden “has a very well-established record in public service of fighting for working people,” Cicilline said, and would likely use the antitrust laws to tackle income inequality and improve labor conditions if he became president.

In the interview, Cicilline criticized past Democratic and Republican administrations for lax antitrust enforcement that he said has led to dominant companies across industries. He said Biden would want to use the antitrust laws to protect consumers, innovation, small business and “all the things that are at risk if we don’t have competition in the digital marketplace,” Cicilline said.

On Monday, Cicilline headlined a Biden fundraiser at which competition issues were broadly discussed. He said he hadn’t talked about his subcommittee’s work with the former vice president, but was sure Biden would appoint “aggressive” enforcers.

A Biden campaign representative declined to comment.

Cicilline is preparing to urge Congress to strengthen the antitrust laws and reduce the market power of Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc.

Many left-of-center antitrust advocates, including Cicilline, are hoping to remake merger enforcement so that the predominant focus of analysis wouldn’t just be on consumer price increases, but would also consider stagnant wages, innovation, income inequality and privacy rights.

Many of those who favor a broader view of harm wonder if a Biden administration would maintain the status quo or take a more aggressive stand. The Obama administration pursued a mostly traditional approach to antitrust enforcement. While its Justice Department stopped several high-profile mergers, it approved others that were criticized as worsening competition, such as the tie-up of American Airlines Group Inc. and US Airways. When it came to the big tech platforms, enforcers under Obama were mostly hands-off.

Biden has said little on the subject beyond opining last year in an Associated Press interview that the U.S. doesn’t “spend nearly enough time focusing on antitrust measures.” He stopped short of calling for corporate break-ups.

Cicilline’s comments reflect the party’s internal struggle over which viewpoint will prevail in a potential Biden administration. Biden’s campaign, which has struggled with skepticism from the Democrats’ increasingly vocal left wing, is getting informal advice from some of the new thinkers, often referred to as the “hipster antitrust” school, which has also worked with Cicilline, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Yet Biden is also getting plenty of input from veterans of Obama-era enforcement agencies, lawyers at major corporate firms and company officials, the people said.

Among a group of informal advisers are Sarah Miller, a key voice for overhauling antitrust as executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, and onetime Justice Department antitrust chief Bill Baer. Microsoft Corp. Chief Privacy Officer Julie Brill, who also served as a Federal Trade Commissioner, is one of the private-sector executives offering advice.

Terrell McSweeny, a former Biden aide and FTC commissioner who is now at Covington & Burling LLP, is a leader of the group, as is former Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

Miller said it was “really an open question” how Biden’s administration would enforce antitrust laws if he wins, but that “there absolutely needs to be people involved that are not beholden to this old and discredited way of thinking.”

Baer and Clyburn declined to comment on whether they’re advising Biden and Microsoft declined to comment on Brill’s behalf. McSweeny didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

A subgroup of informal Biden advisers is focusing on the effect of mergers and monopolies on inequality, according to two people familiar with the matter. Inequality currently doesn’t figure into the economic equation in merger reviews. If a potential Biden administration adopted that view, it would represent a leftward shift from Obama’s tenure.

The Democrats’ 2020 platform turned toward the hipster view by urging regulators to “consider potential effects of future mergers on the labor market, on low-income and marginalized communities, and on racial equity” -- key tenets of the hipster antitrust project. It also outlined worries with “runaway corporate concentration” in several industries.

Cicilline warned that tech companies that have become powerful in Washington will push back on any legal changes he proposes.

“They’re going to fight it in every way that they can,” he said, adding that he and his allies “have democracy and the people on our side and we’ll be successful.”

Business interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have already begun their pushback against proposals that it says “would radically remake a century’s worth of bipartisan policy that has protected competition and championed innovation to the benefit of consumers and America’s global competitiveness.” It launched a website and ran ads earlier in the summer, and is planning more for September, a spokeswoman said in July.

That same month, Cicilline grilled the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google parent Alphabet at a public hearing, and said he would be issuing a report recommending changes to toughen antitrust law in September as he wraps up his probe.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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