Opinion

Empowering Big Government on Antitrust Will Backfire

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Posted: Apr 30, 2022 12:01 AM
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Empowering Big Government on Antitrust Will Backfire

Source: AP Photo/John Locher

Lawmakers of both parties are considering legislation that would grant sweeping new powers to an already heavily politicized Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ). Attempting to exploit conservatives’ anger towards Big Tech’s content moderation practices, progressives are proposing the weaponization of antitrust law. Instead of embracing the politicization of antitrust law, conservatives should be asking themselves:  when has expanding government powers helped conservative causes?

Republicans only need to look to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to see the perils of an empowered and unaccountable bureaucracy. Less than a decade ago, the IRS was wracked with a scandal after details surfaced that the tax agency was apparently targeting conservative groups. More recently, data security issues at the IRS saw the leaking of information of private taxpayers to ProPublica, an issue still unresolved. Republican lawmakers have cast a skeptical eye at Democrats’ attempt to grant the IRS massive new powers like snooping through Americans’ bank accounts. Some conservative groups have even stated the IRS should not receive one penny more in funding.

An empowered federal bureaucracy does not respect conservative values, and the IRS is not unique in this. Progressives have shown a willingness to utilize federal agencies and any levers of government as an end around to move their policies forward. 

Climate activists have pressured the Federal Reserve to take an activist stance in addressing climate change. Progressives like Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) announced opposition to Federal Reserve Chair nominee Jerome Powell over his perceived lack of action on climate change. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked President Biden to declare a national emergency on climate change, which would grant the federal government substantial powers it would not have otherwise have. 

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how quickly government powers can expand, and how slowly they are drawn back. Who could have imagined that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) would be allowed to take the unprecedented step of imposing a federal eviction moratorium? Not to mention the lockdowns and other restrictions put in place. Now, there is the ongoing, and increasingly indefensible pause on student loan payments from the Biden Administration as Democrats use the COVID-19 pandemic to push for the long standing progressive goal of canceling student loan debt. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) also introduced legislation that would allow a political appointee to define “health misinformation” during a public health emergency. Now, as she attempts to ratchet up support for her American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO), conservatives should be questioning how this bill will address any of their free speech concerns. AICO would bestow the FTC with massive new powers to control the growth of the tech sector. It would also break services consumers enjoy like free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime and integrated maps in Google search. Since free speech online isn’t addressed by AICO, conservatives would be forced to count on an increasingly partisan and polarized FTC to aid their cause. That’s an unlikely proposition.

Lina Khan’s bait and switch appointment to head the FTC was an inauspicious start to her tenure. The FTC’s actions under this regime have been nothing short of shocking, including: a departed Commissioner casting mystery “zombie” votes; threatening letters sent to businesses; and a gag order on FTC staff. Not to mention FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter’s remarks that antitrust enforcement should be “antiracist” and encompass a broader set of goals than harms to consumers. The lack of trust Republicans feel towards the FTC is also demonstrated in their unwillingness to give the FTC a fifth Commissioner, forcing Democrats to take the unusual step of utilizing a discharge petition to get their nominee to the floor. 

While conservatives are under pressure to “do something” about Big Tech, empowering the FTC and DOJ will not serve their interests. Antitrust is a favored tool for progressives who are more concerned with taking down what they believe to be mis- and disinformation and promoting their own goals than with the speech issues that are top of mind with conservatives. Empowered and unaccountable federal agencies haven’t been champions of conservative policies, and Republicans shouldn’t expect the Lina Khan’s FTC to be any different. 

Will Yepez is a policy and government affairs associate with the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for taxpayers at all levels of government.