A Good Election for Anti-Monopolists
Voters are mad, but apparently not at Joe Biden. It was an excellent day for anti-monopolists, and a terrible one for the crypto world.
Yesterday, voters across America went to the polls to weigh in on Joe Biden’s first two years. And the grade the voters gave Biden was… acceptable. It was a change election, but not an utter rejection of the Biden agenda.
The expectation was that Democrats would get blown out, as they were in 2010 and 2014. Instead, the Republicans narrowly won the House, but the Democrats may keep the Senate. And it was a very good outcome for anti-monopoly politics.
The short story of election night is, as one of my right-wing contacts put it, “Republicans screwed it up. We have no vision.” The results, he added, are “good for antitrust.” Here are my initial take-aways, though these may change as more votes are counted.
1) The Tech Antitrust Bills Are Still Alive: Over the past four years, Congress has done investigations on how to revamp antitrust law and address big tech, and has offered various revisions to the law. So far, nothing has passed. But in the period before the next Congress is seated, the so-called ‘lame duck,’ a lot could pass depending on the outcome of a few Senate races where votes remain to be counted, as well as what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to do.
The most valuable political commodity when your party is about to lose the majority is ‘floor time,’ which is the ability to have legislation voted on in the main body of the Senate or House.
You only have a month and a half until the new Congress comes into power, and everyone wants their priorities honored before that happens. So there’s fierce lobbying to pass funding or legislative priorities before the other party takes over, but there’s also a desire to confirm judges, which cannot happen if the Senate is controlled by the opposite party.
However, if you aren’t going to lose the majority, you have a lot more floor time next year, and passing bills that cannot move next session with a Republican House becomes the priority. You can always confirm judges later using floor time in a split Congress, because the House has no role in judicial confirmations. It’s a pure Senate matter.
If the Democrats keep the Senate, which is possible, then tech antitrust bills are on the table. One bill, to make it easier for state law enforcers to bring antitrust cases, and to force the disclosure of Chinese subsidies in merger deals, has already passed the House and is likely to make it into law. The three antitrust bills that have passed committees and might make it into law include:
A bill to address Apple/Google monopoly control over app stores
A bill to block self-preferencing by dominant platforms of their own products
A bill to allow newspapers to band together into coops and bargain with Google/FB over ad revenue
If the Democrats win two out of the three Senate seats in either Nevada, Georgia, or Arizona, then they will keep their majority, and they won’t need to use lame duck floor time to confirm judges. They can use it for legislative priorities. Then it becomes a question for Schumer and the White House, which has already signaled it will lobby to make tech antitrust bills a priority.
There are a lot of uncertainties. The Nevada and Arizona races are too close to call, and Georgia is headed to a run-off that could take weeks. So we’ll see.
2) Anti-Monopolists Will Have a Lot of Influence in the Next Congress: On the Democratic side, John Fetterman will likely be a reliable vote for anti-monopoly interests, and Democrats will be interested in overseeing the various industrial policy laws they passed in Biden’s first two years to secure the supply chains of semiconductors, electric vehicles, infrastructure, and so forth. That means market structure will become increasingly important. There’s also interest in working across the aisle on anti-monopoly rules. For instance:
The key political problem for anti-monopolists is incoming Republican Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, who is very friendly to big tech interests. He will block all antitrust legislation if he can, and torture regulators and enforcers to the best of his ability. Jordan is fully supported by likely House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers. That said, it’s a split caucus; 39 Republicans voted last month to break with this group and support stronger antitrust laws.
Jordan’s hope was that the Republicans would get a very large majority, which means they could ignore anti-monopolist sentiment on the right. But they will have a narrow majority, so a small bloc of GOP members can wield a lot of power. We can expect conservatives like Ken Buck to continue making the case to do that, and Jordan’s ability to discipline Buck will be limited by the need to retain a working majority.
There’s more. J.D. Vance is a significant new Senator on the right, and he called for stronger antitrust laws in the Republican primary, particularly to break up Big Tech firms. And Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican, is no longer in Congress. He was the smartest and most aggressive pro-monopoly Senator, so that’s a big loss for the bad guys. As time passes, the libertarian energy of the 1980s and 1990s ebbs everywhere.
3) Populist Messaging Did Well: Voters are an unhappy bunch, which makes the relative Democratic over-performance all the more unexpected.
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