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The White House Is Pushing Congress to Rein in Big Tech Before the GOP Takes Over the House

8 minute read

With only a few weeks left to pass two high-profile antitrust bills targeting Big Tech, the White House is privately pushing the offices of the Democratic leaders in Congress to pass the legislative package during the lame duck session, according to sources familiar with the matter.

In private meetings with the staffs of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, multiple sources say, White House officials have emphasized that it’s a priority to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO) and the Open App Markets Act (OAMA) before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January. The officials have also said they believe the bills have more than 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, as the Biden Administration has been holding a series of meetings with Senate and House leaders to orchestrate a campaign to get the legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk, sources say.

Both of the AICO bill’s lead sponsors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, have said for months that it has the votes needed to pass the Senate. Grassley has insisted that more than 20 Republicans are prepared to vote for it. The only thing holding the legislation up has been Schumer, who controls the Senate floor and has suggested the votes might not really be there. “Sen. Schumer is working with Sen. Klobuchar and other supporters to gather the needed votes and plans to bring it up for a vote,” a Schumer spokesperson said over the summer.

But the New York Democrat still hasn’t committed to holding a floor vote, leaving anti-monopoly advocates to fear that he is claiming to support the legislation while playing into Big Tech’s strategy of running out the clock. Schumer’s office and the White House did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment on Friday.

“We are very committed to moving ambitious tech antitrust legislation and we’re stepping up engagement during the lame duck on the President’s agenda across the board, including antitrust,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters later on Friday afternoon. “There’s a bipartisan support for these antitrust bills and no reason why Congress can’t act before the end of the year.”

The antitrust movement’s sense of urgency is due to the fact that Republicans won a slim House majority in the midterms, and two of the bills’ fiercest adversaries on Capitol Hill are poised to take powerful posts where they would be expected to kill the effort if it gets pushed to the next Congress. On Tuesday, the House GOP caucus nominated Kevin McCarthy of California to become the next Speaker, and Jim Jordan of Ohio is likely to become the next chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

“With Republicans in control of the House, it will be significantly more difficult to make progress on this issue,” Rep. David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, tells TIME. “Kevin McCarthy and the Republican leadership fought us every step of the way. It’s a classic example of the corrupting influence of money in our political system.” (Both McCarthy and Jordan have been the beneficiaries of contributions from the likes of Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley power players.)

The AICO legislation would prohibit the likes of Amazon and Google from prioritizing their own products on their platforms over competitors. The Open App Markets Act would force Apple and Google to open up their app stores to rival marketplaces.

Antitrust advocates say the bills are vital because the the platforms’ monopoly power has created an environment where success leads to failure for small businesses and innovators: If a company has to go through a platform like Amazon to reach its customers, they are at an inherent competitive disadvantage, because Amazon can identify that their product is selling well and then create their own version it, as it often does. The Seattle-based company can then place their product on the first page of its search engine, and the other firm’s product much further down. The dynamic is leading the smaller companies to complain that any breakthrough product will be both “first to the market and first to the grave,” says Eric Migicovsky, co-founder of Beeper.

The Biden Administration and lawmakers have until the end of the year to pass the antitrust legislation aimed at reining in the power of Big Tech. Sources say they accepted that the measure would go on the back burner over the summer—the original deadline set by the bill’s proponents—to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, a $433 billion health, climate, and tax bill that was one of Democrats’ key priorities going into the midterms. But now that the elections are over, they are ramping up their efforts to pass the measures before it’s too late.

The White House and members of Congress held a series of meetings this week with the leaders of “small tech” companies who are championing the legislative package and who have struggled to compete with the tech behemoths that have cornered their respective markets.

On Thursday, Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp, Garry Tan, a venture capitalist and incoming CEO of Y Combinator, Angela Hoover, CEO of Andi, an alternative search engine to Google, and Migicovsky of Beeper, all met with White House officials and various lawmakers’ offices. They noticed a discrepancy between the White House’s vote counting and Schumer’s: “The White House told us the bills have the 60 votes,” Stoppelman tells TIME. “And then later in the day, we’re in Schumer’s office, and they said, ‘We support the legislation, and we’re hoping to find the votes.’”

Over the last few months, Schumer has been the target of multiple protests due to his stalling on the legislation. Fight for the Future, a progressive advocacy group, had been playing a John Oliver segment in support of the bill on repeat on a large video screen outside of Schumer’s Brooklyn throughout the summer. And a group of anti-monopoly demonstrators bombarded his office on Halloween wearing Jeff Bezos masks.

Both of the Big Tech antitrust bills passed out of the House and Senate Judiciary committees by bipartisan majorities but have been held up for months to get floor votes in each chamber of Congress. Sources familiar with the process tell TIME that Pelosi has been waiting on Schumer to first pass it out of the Senate before putting her members, especially those from California, through a difficult vote.

That’s been a source of frustration for the bills’ allies on both sides of the aisle. “Why don’t they bring it up in the House?” Rep. Ken Buck, Republican of Colorado and a lead sponsor of the House version, told TIME in September. “Maybe Big Tech owns them. I have no idea. They point the finger at each other. It’s ridiculous. They pass legislation when they want to. Pelosi has had plenty of tough votes for her members.” Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House has repeatedly signaled in meetings that it agrees substantively with the bills and sees a need to make the tech industry more dynamic to compete with China, a source familiar with the matter tells TIME. The National Security Council has become an increasingly strong voice in the effort to pass the measures, lending its influence to the argument that the country’s foreign policy would be better served by a more competitive tech ecosystem.

“We’ve been meeting with them. We’ll meet again,” says Cicilline, author of the House version, referring to the White Hpouse. “We know we have the votes both in the Senate and the House. This is a question of getting it on the calendar. It has always been a priority of the President’s. He is very supportive of our antitrust agenda.”

Biden has made strengthening America’s antitrust enforcement regime a featured part of his economic agenda. He appointed some of the nation’s leading anti-monopoly scholars and Big Tech antagonists to core positions in his administration, such as Lina Khan as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Jonathan Kanter as head of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, and Tim Wu on the National Economic Council. And he issued a sweeping executive order in July 2021 directing the entire government to work toward cracking down on consolidated markets and increasing competition.

But even with anti-monopoly eggheads tasked with leading the nation’s top antitrust enforcement agencies, the legislation’s champions insist that there need to be changes in statute to prevent the major tech companies from abusing their power.

And if lawmakers don’t get it done now, there’s no telling when they might have another chance. “This is really our last opportunity,” says Cicilline.

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