Feb 4, 2021 - Technology

Klobuchar introduces sweeping antitrust reform bill

Illustration of group of people pulling down a large cursor
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is out today with a plan for how Congress could update antitrust laws to give enforcers better odds and more ammunition for taking on Big Tech and other industries dominated by a handful of mega-corporations.

Why it matters: The Minnesota Democrat will lead the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel, putting her in position to take the lead on rewriting competition laws. Her new bill aligns with proposals from House Democrats and some populist Republicans, upping the chances she can get it passed.

Driving the news: Klobuchar on Thursday introduced the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act, which would make it harder for big companies to get mergers approved and would give enforcers like the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department sharper teeth.

  • Klobuchar is introducing the bill with fellow Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey and is coordinating with her antitrust counterparts in the House, as well as reaching out to Republicans for support, she told Axios.

Details: The bill would update longstanding antitrust statute to forbid mergers that "create an appreciable risk of materially lessening competition." Current law only bars mergers that demonstrably reduce competition — a tough thing to prove with tech mergers particularly.

  • The bill would also bar dominant firms from conduct that puts competitors at a competitive disadvantage.

The bill also seeks to make things easier on regulators trying to block a merger or bring the hammer down on powerful companies with fines, breakups and demands to change behavior.

  • The FTC and DOJ would get an influx of cash and resources, in addition to the legal ability to issue civil fines for violations.
  • Regulators would also be relieved of having to precisely define a market before mounting an antitrust case — a notoriously difficult challenge in tech.
  • Many companies trying to merge would have to prove their deal won't hurt competition. Right now, the burden is on enforcers to prove a given deal will hurt competition.

Yes, but: Telecom and broadcast companies already have to demonstrate to the FCC that a given deal is in the public interest. But that heightened standard hasn't stopped those industries from becoming heavily consolidated.

The big picture: Antitrust reform has become a mainstream issue for Democrats. Many of the provisions in Klobuchar's bill match recommendations House Democrats made in a sweeping report on Big Tech and antitrust last year.

  • Klobuchar mentioned antitrust to President Joe Biden last week, she told Axios, and said she views the president's nomination of Merrick Garland as attorney general as a promising sign for serious attention to the topic.

She could also find common cause with at least a faction of Republicans, whose party has likewise soured on tech.

  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Wednesday offered an amendment to budget legislation to preemptively prohibit mergers and acquisitions by dominant online platforms.
  • Over in the House, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) was just named ranking member of the antitrust subpanel. He said going after anticompetitive behavior by Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple was a top priority.

What's next: Klobuchar plans multiple hearings related to the antitrust package, focusing on different sectors of the economy including pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and media, she said, noting that she intends to make these preludes to legislative action and not ends in themselves.

  • "Having a few hearings where you’re, like, sitting at a movie throwing popcorn at a screen — at the CEOs — isn’t gonna be enough," she said. "We have to get something done."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Ken Buck is from Colorado, not Ohio.

Go deeper