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Warren Calls Out Buttigieg and Schumer in Speech Urging Washington Get Tougher on Monopolies

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Elizabeth Warren has a message for some of her fellow Democrats: Stop protecting corporate monopolies.

In a sweeping policy speech on Wednesday laying out a grand vision for renewing and strengthening U.S. antitrust enforcement, the Massachusetts Senator accused members of her own party, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, of enabling anti-competitive conduct and consolidated markets.

Speaking before the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank in Washington, the liberal icon put pressure on several key Democrats to follow the Biden administration’s lead in pushing for more robust competition policy, while also making the case that resurrecting antitrust enforcement is at the core of protecting American democracy.

Though she didn’t mention Schumer by name, Warren took a less-than-subtle swipe at the New York Senator for refusing to hold a vote during the last congressional term on bipartisan legislation that aimed to prevent the tech giants from abusing their monopoly power. Both bills appeared to have enough support in Congress to make it to President Biden’s desk, according to Democratic and Republican supporters.

“Those bipartisan antitrust bills should be law today,” she said. “And they would be law today if they had gotten votes on the floor of the Senate and the House. But there was never a vote on those bills. It was a mistake we cannot afford to repeat. But listen to the underlying lesson: There is demonstrated bipartisan appetite to rein in Big Tech. That means the time to move on legislation is right now.”

Warren was referring to the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which would have prohibited dominant tech companies like Amazon and Google from giving preference to their own products over competitors that have to use their platforms to reach customers. A smaller companion bill, the Open App Markets Act (OAMA), would have forced Apple and Google to open up their app stores to rival marketplaces. The bills garnered strange bedfellows, ranging from progressive leaders like Warren to arch-conservative Republicans like Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union speech last week, urged Congress to pass the legislative package.

But the opportunity to advance those bills may have passed. With Republicans now in control of the House, it is unclear if either bill could make it out of Congress, even if Schumer were to allow them to come up for votes in the Senate.

Warren also directly called out Buttigieg for not using his authority as Transportation Secretary to block JetBlue’s proposed acquisition of Spirit Airlines—a merger that would shrink an already concentrated airline industry. Over the past two decades, the number of major airlines have been cut in half, leading to fewer options and higher prices for consumers.

“Secretary Buttigieg has the power to stop anti-competitive airline mergers—and he should use that power. Right. Now,” Warren said. The $3.8 billion deal, which is under review by the Department of Justice, would make JetBlue the nation’s fifth largest airline.

Warren further went after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for sitting on the sidelines amid mergers involving major meatpackers and poultry producers, and for contracting with food supplier JBS USA, which has pleaded guilty to bribery and price fixing. “Why not stop giving taxpayer money to these crooks? Well, as the secretary argued, there really aren’t any competitors, so he has no choice but to keep working with a corporate criminal,” Warren said. “Here’s an idea―break up the big meatpackers so there’s real competition.”

It was part of a larger pitch that Warren made to the heads of federal agencies to join in the fight against economic concentration. “Today, the FTC and DOJ are doing the heavy lifting to block bad deals, but they should not be alone,” Warren said. “Several federal agencies have clear statutory authority to block anti-competitive deals in their areas of expertise. But in agency after agency, those tools are gathering dust. It’s time to pick them up and use them.”

Warren’s speech comes seven years after she addressed Open Markets in 2016 (at the time, it was housed inside the New America Foundation), and she became the first national elected official to so directly address monopolization in generations. Since then, she noted triumphantly, restoring antitrust enforcement is no longer a fringe idea in Washington.

Biden signed an executive order in July 2021 calling for a whole-of-government approach toward strengthening American competition policy, with 72 initiatives to crack down on monopolized markets. He has also appointed leading antitrust crusaders, and Warren allies, to key roles in the federal government, such as Lina Khan as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Jonathan Kanter as head of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, and Tim Wu on the National Economic Council. (Wu, the architect of Biden’s executive order, stepped down at the end of last year.)

With the failure of Congress to pass the antitrust bills targeting Big Tech, more pressure will be on the regulatory enforcement agencies to stop them from abusing their gatekeeper status. As a consolation for the AICOA and OAMA bills not passing last year, Schumer earmarked an extra $50 million to the FTC and $35 million to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division in the omnibus spending package, according to multiple Hill sources familiar with the negotiations.

Those resources could prove pivotal for the agencies, both of which have fewer lawyers now than they did in the 1980s, and are now up against corporate titans in court. The FTC is suing Meta to prevent it from acquiring a virtual reality app. The DOJ is suing Google for allegedly monopolizing digital advertising. “The Biden administration has finally broken the pattern of rubber stamping every big merger that comes along,” Warren said. Khan’s FTC has also rattled corporations because of her recent proposal to ban non-compete clauses.

But while Warren celebrated the progress of the movement over the last several years, she also sought to present a blueprint for safeguarding competition in the years ahead. “Winning the fight against consolidation and monopoly power will require more—more from Congress, more from regulators, and more from all of us working in the field of economic competition,” she said.

The former Harvard Law professor noted that she planned to reintroduce her bill to create hard-and-fast federal rules to thwart harmful mergers, and she endorsed legislation from Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, to create a special investigator’s office inside the USDA to probe antitrust violations by meatpackers.

Warren also called for more aggressive prosecution against monopolists and violators of American antitrust law, including on criminal statutes.

“After forty years of lax enforcement, too many corporate executives view the consequences of breaking antitrust laws as just a cost of doing business—the company pays a fine and everything keeps moving smooth as silk,” she said. Perpetrators of price fixing, wage fixing, and other violations of the Sherman Act should have to sit behind bars, Warren added: “For any executive who needs a reminder, that’s criminal law—Miranda warnings, handcuffs, and orange jumpsuits.”

At the heart of Warren’s speech was the animating principle that monopolization is not just harmful to the economy, but a threat to democracy. Concentrated economic power leads to concentrated political power, she said, enabling major corporations to exert undue influence on the government, often at the expense of the best interests of the American people.

“Today, as giant corporations get even bigger and even more economically powerful, they amass more resources to spend on lobbying and campaign contributions,” she said. “As their political power grows, they use that power to ensure that all the rules—including the antitrust rules—tilt in their favor.”

But with a growing bipartisan movement in Washington, Warren insisted, the dynamics may be changing. While anti-monopolists still face formidable obstacles—well-funded lobbyists, a hostile judiciary, and adversaries inside and outside of government—the Massachusetts lawmaker believes there’s enough momentum on their side that the arc of history will bend in their favor.

“In the David-versus-Goliath battle to break up monopolies and give competition a chance to thrive, betting money would still be on Goliath,” Warren said. “But the Davids are slinging rocks, and the giants are starting to sweat.”

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