Antitrust Update: Up and Down the Avenue
Antitrust Update: Up and Down the Avenue
Are the stars aligning for antitrust reform? President Biden is filling key positions in the White House (Timothy Wu, National Economic Council) and at the FTC (Lina Khan, nominee for commissioner) with lawyers who have advocated for increased antitrust enforcement, especially against “big tech.” In Congress, the House antitrust subcommittee concluded a year-long investigation in October 2020 and found bipartisan agreement on discrete areas for reform. With Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress, antitrust legislation seems close. But not so fast.
The House and Senate antitrust subcommittees have held four hearings since February 25, 2021, but it is crucial to view these recent developments in their proper context. Even when politicians and enforcers appear to agree on a goal, it can still be a long and winding road to actual policy reform.
Although antitrust reform advocates cheered President Biden’s initial appointments, two of the most consequential antitrust positions—the assistant attorney general (AAG) for antitrust and the FTC chair—remain open. Both the AAG and FTC chair wield tremendous authority; they approve cases, guide investigations, and will decide how to proceed with ongoing litigation. It is unlikely that the Biden administration will make any significant decisions, or support any particular legislation, before its key personnel are firmly in place. And that can take time. Former AAG Makan Delrahim was nominated in March 2017 but not confirmed until September 2017.
Interestingly, the pressure to nominate like-minded antitrust reformers for these two positions is coming from multiple angles. One public interest group recently sent a letter to White House chief of staff Ron Klain and, after “highly commend[ing]” the nomination of Ms. Khan to be an FTC commissioner, warned against the influence of certain White House and DOJ officials over the AAG and FTC chair nominations because of their links to “big tech” companies. Additionally, many in the press have been critical of the level of tech enforcement activity during the Obama administration and want to avoid a replay of those years.
Down the avenue, Congress is debating whether to provide the agencies with additional tools and resources. But how realistic are the prospects for legislative reform?
In short, although the prospects for sweeping legislative reform of the antitrust laws are dim, targeted reforms appear increasingly likely, especially increased funding for the agencies. In October 2020, the House antitrust subcommittee concluded a year-long bipartisan investigation into these issues, and the House Democrats published a lengthy report detailing their findings and making recommendations for reform. Notably, the House Republican response identified several areas of agreement, including “providing antitrust enforcement agencies with the necessary resources.”  House Republicans also made it clear that they too are concerned about tech companies “using ‘killer acquisitions’ to remove up-and-coming competitors from the marketplace,” and that the burdens of proof for mergers and predatory pricing cases need to be reevaluated. On March 18, 2021, however, the Republican ranking member on the committee reiterated a shared interest in reforming the evidentiary burden of proof in merger cases, which he described as having become “essentially insurmountable” and “a grant of near total immunity to big tech companies.” Although a path to agreement on more substantive issues typically has many obstacles, reforming the burden of proof in certain instances may be emerging as the most likely candidate for significant legislative action.
In the Senate, on February 4, 2021, newly installed antitrust subcommittee chair Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced a bill that would overhaul existing antitrust laws. Among other reforms, it would lower the government’s burden of proof to block a merger, shift the burden of proof in certain cases and require the merging parties to justify the deal, and increase funding for both the DOJ Antitrust Division and the FTC. At the subcommittee’s March 11, 2021 hearing related to the bill, subcommittee ranking member Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) (who promptly released a statement noting his opposition to Ms. Khan’s nomination) made it clear that he firmly opposes “a sweeping transformation of the antitrust laws.” Throughout the hearing, however, there appeared to be bipartisan support for taking some sort of action to address these issues, and at the very least to provide increased funding to the DOJ and FTC. Even Senator Lee, who recently introduced a bill that would combine the DOJ and FTC to avoid inefficiencies in antitrust enforcement, acknowledged that agency leaders need the resources that are necessary to vigorously enforce antitrust laws.
In these circumstances, the most likely outcome appears to be antitrust officials creatively using their existing tools to enhance enforcement while not so quietly pressing Congress for additional assistance. On March 16, 2020, acting FTC Chair Rebecca Slaughter advocated for increased scrutiny of mergers between pharmaceutical companies. She also told the House antitrust subcommittee that the agencies “should consider withdrawing” the guidance for “vertical” mergers issued during the last administration to allow for more aggressive enforcement. But at the same time, FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips explained that the agency would not be able to challenge certain deals without more funding. The Biden administration and the agencies will need to determine how to square those positions. Also, even assuming Congress could provide the agencies with additional funding quickly (on top of the additional $20 million Congress provided to the FTC in December 2020), using that funding to hire additional attorneys will take time.
The path for meaningful legislative reform remains extremely complicated. The prospect for reform depends significantly on whether members of Congress, congressional leadership, and the Biden administration are willing to expend the time and political capital necessary to pass a reform bill (which also assumes the relevant parties can agree on what should be included—or, perhaps more importantly, excluded—from that bill). In light of competing priorities, the absence of key personnel, and the already narrowing congressional calendar (major non-appropriations legislation typically will not move after July in an election year (2022)), those prospects appear to be slim. In the meantime, we expect that Congress will continue to focus attention on these issues with more hearings and new legislative proposals, but it remains to be seen when attention will become action.
 Letter from Jeff Hauser, Exec. Dir. of Revolving Door Project, to Ron Klain, Chief of Staff to President Biden (Mar. 9, 2021), https://therevolvingdoorproject.org/letter-to-biden-chief-of-staff-ron-klain-about-amazon-and-google-influence-over-antitrust-appointments/.
 See, e.g., Marcy Gordon, For Big Tech, Biden brings a new era but no ease in scrutiny, ABC News, Nov. 27, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory/big-tech-biden-brings-era-ease-scrutiny-74434373.
 The Third Way, Min. Report of the H. Jud. Subcomm. on Antitrust at 12, 116th Cong. (Oct. 2020), https://buck.house.gov/sites/buck.house.gov/files/wysiwyg_uploaded/Buck%20Report.pdf.
 Id. at 3.
 Reviving Competition, Part 3: Strengthening the Laws to Address Monopoly Power: Hearing Before the H. Subcomm. on Antitrust, Commercial & Admin. Law, 117th Cong. (Mar. 18, 2021) (Testimony of Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, Acting Chair of the FTC, at 2:04:00), https://judiciary.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=4453.