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The Strange Coalition in Congress Poised to Score a Major Win Against Big Tech

8 minute read

Congress doesn’t get much done these days, but one major piece of legislation stands a good chance of becoming law thanks to a bizarre coalition that includes virtually every Democrat not from California and some of the most conservative members of the GOP caucus.

The bill, called the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, or AICO, aims to curb Big Tech’s monopoly power. Supporters say it will prevent the likes of Amazon and Google from giving an advantage to their own products over competitors on their platforms. The tech giants argue the bill will stifle innovation, harm consumers, and jeopardize cybersecurity.

Nonetheless, AICO is on the verge of passing both chambers in the coming weeks, with the support of progressives like Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who authored the House version, as well as MAGA Republicans like Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Matt Gaetz of Florida. Even Tucker Carlson, the far-right Fox News host with the most-watched cable news show, has devoted segments to the bill’s merits.

As efforts to revive a slimmed-down version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda have stalled and the latest round of bipartisan negotiations on gun control may be months away from bearing fruit, if they do at all, AICO might be the only substantial action Congress takes before pivoting to the midterms.

“This is the show,” says a senior House Democratic staffer not authorized to speak publicly on the bill.

The legislation has already cleared the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, meaning it is ready to be voted on by the full chambers. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to putting AICO up for a floor vote by early summer, Axios reported last week. And a Congressional aide familiar with the matter tells TIME the bill has the votes to pass the House once it makes it out of the Senate.

Multiple sources involved in the process say that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is waiting for the measure to clear the Senate before putting it on the House floor.

In the House, where Democrats have a 13-seat majority, no more than eight Democrats are expected to vote against the measure, half of whom are a hard no, while the rest remain undecided, according to the latest whip count. But with nine Republican co-sponsors, including members of the Freedom Caucus such as Reps. Ken Buck of Colorado and Lance Gooden of Texas, the bill should still have more than enough support to make it over the finish line.

The rare showing of bipartisanship that may send AICO to Biden, who is expected to sign it, reflects the intense interest on Capitol Hill to take on the tech behemoths, who have antagonized different factions of Congress for different reasons, inadvertently creating this strange-bedfellows alliance.

Democrats, to varying degrees, see an imperative to address dangerous levels of concentrated economic power. Republicans are eager to crack down on dominant communications platforms run and staffed largely by liberals, whom they accuse of intentionally stifling conservative speech.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, agree on hardly anything. But the respective Senate Antitrust Subcommittee chairwoman and the Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member agree on the need to stop powerhouse platforms like Amazon and Google from abusing their gatekeeper status. Together, they introduced AICO last year and have since attracted a motley crew of Senate co-sponsors ranging from liberal favorite Cory Booker of New Jersey to right-wing firebrand Josh Hawley of Missouri.

A second tech bill, the Open App Markets Act, is also moving through Congress, and would force Apple and Google to open their app stores to rival marketplaces. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a bipartisan vote of 20-2. Both chambers are expected to pass the legislation in conjunction with AICO.

But while the measures have broad support, time is not on their side. If AICO doesn’t pass before Congress breaks for its five-week summer recess in early August, there’s little hope it can get done in the fall, when all eyes will turn toward the midterms. “There’s going to be a lot of things that come up after August,” Buck tells TIME. “It will be more difficult to get these passed.”

And if Republicans have a good enough election outcome to take back control of one or both chambers of Congress, as many expect, the entire effort could be squashed. One of the bill’s biggest opponents on Capitol Hill is Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California who is the frontrunner to be the next Speaker if the GOP takes back the House.

Garrett Ventry, Buck’s former former chief of staff who is now a Republican consultant and lobbyist, notes that a multimillion-dollar effort by the major tech firms has failed every step of the way in blocking either bill from advancing. “They tried to stop the bills from even getting introduced. They tried to stop the bills from getting through committee. Now they are trying to stop the bills from getting passed out of Congress.”

“But the votes are there, so the only way they can win is if they run out the clock,” Ventry adds.

In other words, the race is on. Klobuchar recently released an updated version of AICO after getting input from on-the-fence lawmakers. The changes include more permissive language that allows platforms to engage in certain kinds of anti-competitive conduct to protect users’ privacy. The text also prohibits platforms from denying competitors access to their software systems, known as interoperability. Klobuchar’s communications director, Jane Meyer, tells TIME the Minnesota lawmaker is “working expeditiously with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to bring this bill to the floor.”

The National Taxpayers Union, an advocacy group that has received support from tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, argued last week that Kloubuchar’s update did not address the bill’s biggest flaws.

“AICO isn’t going to help consumers. It’s a big government bill aimed at empowering bureaucrats in Washington to exercise greater control over technology companies,” says Will Yepez, the group’s policy and government affairs manager. “Lawmakers who want to do something about Big Tech can do that without taking heavy-handed action.”

For the chief advocates of the legislation, the primary hurdle is to simply get the bills on the floor for a vote. “These bills have never been about whip count, because it’s always been pretty clear that if you hold a vote, they will pass,” says a former Senate aide now lobbying for the legislation. “People don’t want to stand with Big Tech.”

Numerous polls have found that most Americans approve of legislation to rein in the power of the tech giants. A July 2021 survey by the Future of Tech Commission found that 80 percent of registered voters want the federal government to “curb the influence of Big Tech companies.” A new poll this month by Hart Research found that 76% of voters in swing states such as Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Nevada support AICO after being told what the bill intends to do.

Still, Pelosi wants to see AICO pass the evenly split Senate—where so many Democratic priorities die—before putting her members through a vote that might draw pushback from some of their constituents. She is mainly thinking of her fellow California Democrats, many of whom represent Silicon Valley.

Until then, AICO has to make it through a short time window when members of Congress will be trying to ram through other legislation before campaign season ramps up.

Some legislators want to prioritize measures that they feel would resonate more with voters, such as a bill to provide funding to ease the pandemic-caused supply-chain crisis that has already passed the Senate, and a heavily watered down-version of Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better framework that might draw the pivotal support of Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. At the same time, there’s a renewed interest in passing new red flag laws and expanding background checks after recent mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.

The challenge for AICO’s supporters, sources say, will be to finagle the bill through a busy summer docket—especially as the Big Tech lobbying firms intensify their effort to thwart it.

“Anytime you have a bill that brings together not your average combination of members, it’s always tricky to figure out how it’s going to happen,” a senior Democratic Senate aide says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen—until it’s happening.”

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