White House Pushes Congress on Lame Duck Antitrust Bills

UWith just weeks left to pass two high-profile antitrust bills targeting big tech, the White House is privately pushing the offices of 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 Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House staff Speaker Nancy Pelosi, multiple sources said, White House officials have stressed that it is a priority to pass the American Innovation and Online Choice Act (AICO) and the Open Application Marketplaces Act (OAMA) before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January. Officials also said they believed the bills had more than the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, as the Biden administration held a series of meetings with Senate and House leaders to mount a campaign to get the legislation to the desk of President Joe Biden, sources say.

Both of the AICO bill’s lead sponsors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have said for months that it has the necessary votes to pass the Senate. Grassley insisted that more than 20 Republicans were ready to vote for him. The only thing holding the legislation back is Schumer, who controls the Senate floor and suggests the votes may not really be there. “Sen. Schumer is working with Senator Klobuchar and other supporters to gather the necessary votes and plans to put it up for a vote,” a Schumer spokesman said over the summer.

But the New York Democrat has yet to commit to a vote, leaving antitrust advocates to fear that he is claiming support for the legislation while playing into Big Tech’s time-consuming strategy. Schumer’s office and the White House did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment on Friday.

“We are very committed to advancing ambitious technology antitrust legislation and are stepping up engagement during the lame-duck in the president’s agenda in all areas, including antitrust,” White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre told reporters later Friday afternoon. “There is bipartisan support for these antitrust bills, and there’s no reason Congress can’t act before the end of the year.”

The antitrust movement’s sense of urgency stems from the fact that Republicans won a slim majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections and two of the bills fiercest opponents on Capitol Hill are poised to occupy powerful positions where they are expected to destroy the effort if delayed until the next Congress. On Tuesday, the House GOP caucus nominated Kevin McCarthy of California to be the next speaker, and Jim Jordan of Ohio is likely to become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“With Republicans in control of the House, it’s going to be significantly more difficult to make progress on this issue,” Congressman David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island and chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, told TIME. “Kevin McCarthy and the Republican leadership fought us every step of the way. This is a classic example of the corrupting influence of money in our political system. (Both McCarthy and Jordan have been beneficiaries over the years of contributions from people like Google, Facebookand other Silicon Valley power players.)

The AICO legislation would prohibit companies such as 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 their app stores to competing markets.

Antitrust advocates say the bills are vital because the platforms’ monopoly power has created an environment where success breeds 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 find that their product sells well and then create their own version of it, as is often the case. The Seattle-based company can then place their product on the first page of their search engine, and the other company’s product much further down. The dynamic has smaller companies complaining that any breakthrough product will be both “first to market and first to the grave,” says Eric Migikowski, co-founder of Beeper.

The Biden administration and lawmakers have until the end of the year to pass antitrust legislation aimed at curbing the power of Big Tech. Sources say they have accepted that the measure will remain on the back burner over the summer – the initial one deadline set by the bill’s advocates — to pass the Deflation Act, a $433 billion health, climate and tax bill that was one of Democrats’ key priorities in the midterms. But now that the election has passed, they are stepping 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 leaders of “small tech” companies that are defending the legislative package and are struggling to compete with the tech giants that have cornered their respective markets.

On Thursday, Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp, Gary Tan, venture capitalist and future CEO of Y Combinator, Angela Hoover, CEO of Andi, an alternative search engine to Google; and Beeper’s Migikowski, all met with representatives from the White House and various lawmakers’ offices. They noticed a discrepancy between the White House vote count and Schumer’s. “The White House told us the bills have 60 votes,” Stoppelman tells TIME. “And then later in the day we were in Schumer’s office and they said, ‘We support the legislation and we hope to get the votes.’

Over the past few months, Schumer has been the target of numerous protests over his delays on the legislation. Fight for the Future, a progressive advocacy group, ran a John Oliver segment in support of Schumer’s bill to replay on a large video screen outside of Brooklyn all summer. And a group of antitrust demonstrators bombed in his office on Halloween wearing Jeff Bezos masks.

Both big tech antitrust bills passed the House and Senate Judiciary committees with bipartisan majorities, but were held up for months to get a vote in each house of Congress. Sources familiar with the process told TIME that Pelosi was waiting for Schumer to pass it out of the Senate first before subjecting her members, especially those from California, to a tough vote.

That was a source of frustration for the bills’ allies on both sides of the aisle. “Why not take it up in the House?” Representative Ken Buck, R-Colorado and lead sponsor of the House version, told TIME in September. “Maybe Big Tech owns them. I have no idea. They point fingers at each other. This is ridiculous. They legislate when they want to. Pelosi had many difficult 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 in substance with the bills and sees a need to make the tech industry more dynamic to compete with China, a source familiar with the matter told TIME. The National Security Council has become an increasingly vocal voice in efforts 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 have met with them. We’ll meet again,” says Cicillin, author of the House version, referring to White Hpouse. “We know we have the votes in both the Senate and the House. It’s a matter of entering the calendar. It has always been the president’s priority. He is very supportive of our antitrust program.”

Biden has made strengthening America’s antitrust regime a central part of his economic agenda. He appointed some of the nation’s leading antitrust scholars and opponents of Big Tech to key positions in his administration, such as Lina Hahn as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Jonathan Canter as head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, and Tim Wu of the National Economic Council. And he issued a sweeping executive order in July 2021 directing the entire government to work to eliminate consolidated markets and increase competition.

But even with antitrust chiefs tasked with leading the nation’s top antitrust agencies, advocates of the legislation insist there will need to be changes to the statute to prevent big tech companies from abusing their power.

And if lawmakers don’t do it now, there’s no telling when they’ll get another chance. “This is really our last chance,” Cicillin says.

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