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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | March 8, 2024

Biden’s Trustbusters Face Hurdles From Within

Anti-MonopolyDepartment of JusticeEthics in GovernmentRevolving Door
Biden’s Trustbusters Face Hurdles From Within

This article was originally published in The American Prospect. Read on the original site here.

In the last three years, a cadre of dedicated Biden appointees has worked vigorously to check corporate power and improve ordinary Americans’ lives. And this group has been wildly successful, much to the chagrin of corporations, and apparently some of their own colleagues. 

Let’s start with Jonathan Kanter, whose intense leadership of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (ATR) has shown the federal government’s capacity to tackle monopolization. Just this week, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines abandoned their proposed anti-competitive merger, after ATR beat them in court and blocked the deal. Google similarly felt the heat late last year when ATR challenged the search giant’s monopoly power; the outcome of that case is still pending. And there are more targets on the horizon, including Apple, with the Antitrust Division poised to file a lawsuit arguing the company’s “walled garden” suite of products blocks competition.    

At the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Lina Khan has been an equally effective member of the antitrust tag team. Last week, the FTC moved to block Kroger’s $25 billion acquisition of rival grocer Albertsons, an action celebrated by unionized workers at the grocery chains. The agency also has several hard-hitting rules in the works, including a ban on employers’ use of noncompete clauses. The agency estimates that eliminating the exploitative practice could increase workers’ earnings by nearly $300 billion a year. The FTC is also moving to ban the outrageous junk fees consumers face every day when booking hotels, buying concert tickets, paying rent, and more.

As former White House Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy Tim Wu put it, the ATR and FTC “have emerged as the star agencies of the Biden Administration measured by the metric of (1) doing their job and (2) addressing problems that truly concern all Americans.”

These are the types of policies voters believe politicians should act upon. President Biden has on several occasions, including in last night’s State of the Union, touted the actions of his most effective enforcers as proof that his administration will stand up to corporations, unlike the other guy who will undoubtedly sell out everyday Americans to the highest donors. 

Yet Biden’s prodigious anti-monopoly accomplishments have failed to buoy his approval ratings. Why? It’s a matter of emphasis, messaging, and counter-productive actions. 

As much as anti-monopoly actions improve the lives of everyday people, several highly influential figures strewn across the administration have long-standing big business—and specifically Big Tech—ties that militate against a popular, populist agenda. The Antitrust Division and FTC may be going after corporate baddies, but elsewhere in the administration, people like Lisa Monaco and Anita Dunn have been able to shepherd pro-corporate policies that benefit their former private-sector employers. 

The net result is an administration which pulls more corporate punches than you might expect. It’s hard to convince Americans that you’re on their side against corporate power when parts of your administration, frankly, aren’t.

As Deputy Attorney General, Lisa Monaco oversees all of the Department of Justice’s offices, including the Antitrust Division. Before she joined the Biden administration, Monaco worked at BigLaw firm O’Melveny & Myers, where her clients included industry giants ExxonMobil, Humana, and Apple. Monaco also consulted for corporations including Boeing, Lyft, and Softbank through WestExec Advisors

At the DOJ, Monaco’s legacy includes ushering in the “safe harbor policy” on white-collar crime, which watchdog groups (including the Revolving Door Project) said “would give a free pass to corporations that have broken the law, so long as the company is later acquired by another entity and misconduct is reported within a certain time period.” The policy appears antithetical to the Antitrust Division’s goal of promoting competition, creating an incentive for “more concentration of corporate power through strategically-timed mergers or acquisitions sought in order to wipe the slate clean for lawbreakers.” 

More recently, under a proposed funding bill, the Antitrust Division is facing close to a 20 percent reduction in its budget, the second-highest cut across the DOJ’s offices. As the Prospect pointed out, “Monaco’s own operations budget, sometimes called by critics a ‘slush fund,’ got a slight boost in the appropriations package, from $140 million to $142 million.” While we don’t know if Monaco’s corporate ties played any part in these developments, as David Dayen wrote, “it would be better if the situation offered no reason to suspect that conflicts of interest played a role.”

Then there’s Anita Dunn, Biden’s “top messaging and communications adviser.” A long-trusted ally of the President, Dunn’s employment history also includes a long roster of former clients from her political consulting firm, SKD Knickerbocker (SKDK). When she first joined the White House in 2021, Dunn flaunted ethics protocols by taking an artificially low salary in order to shield her corporate clients from public scrutiny. She then left for a stint at the firm and returned to the White House in 2022. Her 93-page personal financial disclosure revealed the corporate clients she sought to protect, spanning from Big Pharma (Pfizer) to telecoms (AT&T) to Big Tech (Lyft, Salesforce and Reddit). She also held investments in Big Oil (Chevron) and the military industrial complex (Lockheed Martin). Given the many possible conflicts stemming from her close ties and her role as advisor to President Biden on pretty much everything, we were driven to ask: “What The Hell Is Anita Dunn Even Allowed To Work On?” 

Even if Dunn manages to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest in regard to her former clients, the fact that Dunn was able to easily step back into the White House after a stint at her consulting firm is exactly the sort of allegiance to corporations that sows public distrust in government. And it doesn’t set a great example for Anita Dunn’s subordinates in the White House communications operation, who carry out the day-to-day messaging for the administration. 

Take for example, the press office’s Olivia Dalton, whom Reuters reported last week will be joining Big Tech company Apple for a senior-level communications job. Though Dalton of course doesn’t hold the level of influence Dunn does, the news of a revolver to Apple, particularly ahead of the Antitrust Division’s soon-to-be filed lawsuit against the company, piqued our interest. So I sent an inquiry to the White House Office of Public and Media Affairs asking for more information on her departure: Did Dalton submit a notification of negotiating with a new employer? Had Dalton been excused from matters relating to Apple (including, say, antitrust, artificial intelligence, patent and copyright, trade policy, tax policy, and CHIPS Act implementation issues)? And what post-employment ethics protocols was Dalton subject to?

My questions apparently hit a nerve. White House spokesperson Robyn M. Patterson responded with comment: 

“As is standard for all employees in the White House, Olivia has received rigorous ethics counseling regarding recusal obligations, including those that may arise from negotiating future employment, and has complied with all applicable ethics rules to prevent conflicts of interest. We hope the same is true for one-time registered lobbyist Jeff Hauser.”

Indeed, Revolving Door executive director Jeff Hauser (full disclosure, my boss) was a one-time registered lobbyist—working for the Coalition For Comprehensive Immigration Reform, made up of labor organizations and faith-based groups including SEIU, Unite Here, United Farm Workers of America, the NAACP, and many others. As we’ve said before, we take issue with corporate lobbyists seeking to influence the executive branch to corporations’ benefit, not with labor and other public interest lobbyists who help everyday Americans reach the people who govern on their behalf. 

What’s more, it’s alarming that the White House would respond to a straightforward inquiry on ethics protocols with defensive snark. Restoring trust in government requires consistent and transparent ethics rules. We’ll never argue that government employees point-blank can’t seek work in the private sector. Indeed, most jobs in the private sector do not involve government lobbying or public affairs—perhaps private sector-minded administration alumni could pursue those positions!

However, we do insist that conflict of interest and post-employment rules be in place and enforced so corporations can’t use former government employees to buy their way out of accountability. It is unfortunately our experience that ethics issues are not always publicly revealed, and so through inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests, we have made a habit out of vetting for potential conflicts of interest ourselves. 

Americans deserve government agencies that keep corporations in check. Biden’s selections of Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter have made strides toward that vision, but even star enforcers can only get so far with public perception when segments of the rest of the administration lean corporate.

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