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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | July 17, 2023

The Climate Denialist Think Tank That Might Produce The Next FTC Commissioner

Anti-MonopolyFTCIndependent Agencies
The Climate Denialist Think Tank That Might Produce The Next FTC Commissioner

This article first appeared in The American Prospect. Read it here.

In the midst of an ongoing smear campaign against Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan—and the FTC under her leadership more generally—for daring to enforce antitrust laws, Republicans have tapped Melissa Holyoak and Andrew Ferguson to fill the remaining Commissioner openings at the FTC.

Holyoak and Ferguson’s corporate-friendly records show that despite increasing attempts to adopt populist rhetoric when it comes to issues like anti-monopoly policy, Republicans remain loyal to their corporate funders. Actions speak louder than words, and their refusal to elevate candidates that challenge corporate consolidation (while consistently attacking the Biden regulators that do) is telling. 

During last week’s House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, the chair Jim Jordan chose to attack Khan, accusing her of “harassing” corporations the FTC is charged with regulating (though some Republicans on the committee supported her, to be fair). These accusations are nothing new. Since Khan was sworn in over two years ago, right-wing politicians and pundits alike have attacked her endlessly about her supposed injection of radical ideology into the otherwise apolitical realm of antitrust enforcement. (The mile-long record of previous FTC officials having a vested interest in the companies the agency oversees mysteriously gets no attention from Republicans.)

But conservatives’ heated accusations of bias against Khan makes for an interesting contrast with Holyoak’s nomination. She previously worked as a senior attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute—a libertarian think tank “arguably best known for its work disputing the science of climate change.” It seems that radical ideologues are allowed at the FTC after all! 

A brief glimpse under the hood of the D.C.-based organization makes it clear that this outfit is a straightforward business mouthpiece. Not only does CEI take funding from fossil fuel interests (ExxonMobil and the Charles Koch Institute), Big Tech (Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta), and Big Pharma (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), but it also takes money from Big Tobacco (Philip Morris and Altria). It’s 2023 and Big Tobacco is apparently not deemed pernicious by some!

And all these corporations and lobbying groups are getting what they paid for. As a “factory for global warming skepticism,” CEI has produced a number of studies, books, advertisements, and documentaries against what it dubs “climate alarmism”—that is, anything that acknowledges, let alone attempts to mitigate, our ongoing climate catastrophe. Myron Bell, the director of CEI’s Center for Energy and Environment, was even credited as being influential in former-President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords.

It doesn’t stop there. The organization’s broader deregulatory agenda—they were formed during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term, after all— also includes loud opposition to actions which limit the power of big business, especially Big Tech. 

During her five-year tenure at CEI’s Center for Class Action Fairness (CCAF), Holyoak represented the organization in a number of lawsuits, including one against the Federal Communications Commission in 2019. In that case, she successfully argued to remove language that provided discounted broadband service rates to low-income consumers in a merger deal between Charter, Brighthouse, and Time Warner. It’s hard to see how this aligns with CCAF’s purported mission to safeguard consumers and the general public, but that goes to show how much one should trust CEI’s word.

You would imagine that any organization with such a corporate pedigree would have their opinions on the actions of regulatory agencies taken with a grain of salt. Yet, for some reason, CEI is still offered space in major media outlets to act as a legitimate voice on antitrust issues—often without having to acknowledge their industry ties. Whether it be quotes in the New York Times, or full op-eds in The Hill, Fortune or Forbes, CEI researchers are regularly defending the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon against the increasing scrutiny of regulators and legislators at both the federal and state level. 

CEI’s sympathy for the tech industry’s flagship monopolists ostensibly comes from a place of concern for consumers. Being big isn’t necessarily bad, they’ve argued, so long as consumers continue to benefit from innovation, product availability, and—most importantly of all—low prices. (Unless, of course, low prices are mandated for low-income consumers, as seen in their case against the FCC.)

Such deference to the consumer welfare standard of competition, however, ignores all the ways in which the anti-competitive nature of monopoly power harms consumers both in terms of their personal privacy and the availability of products.  It’s also not remotely clear that the consumer welfare standard actually leads to lower prices—some research suggests the opposite is true.

It also places CEI at odds with growing concerns from Democrats and some Republicans alike over the sheer size of these firms and their dominance over daily life. This ardently pro-monopoly position is in direct conflict with the resurgence of more expansive antitrust enforcement, typified by Khan and DOJ Antitrust Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter. It should therefore be unsurprising to learn that CEI finds Khan and Kanter’s penchant for antitrust enforcement via litigation, rather than negotiated settlement, particularly offensive. The former especially seems to have drawn CEI’s ire, sparking the launch of an “Eye On The FTC” campaign earlier this year to “raise awareness about overreach and a lack of transparency at Chairman Lina Khan’s Federal Trade Commission.” Holyoak will presumably be carrying on that torch, supplanting former Commissioner Christine Wilson as the resident Khan hater of the FTC.

To those inclined to want to live on a habitable planet free of monopoly dominance—that is, the majority of Americans—CEI’s politics are obviously an issue. But a larger problem is the ostensible neutrality they are offered by the media in debates over public policy.

Take this recent Greenwire article on the Supreme Court’s invocation of the so-called “major questions doctrine” to strike down Biden’s student debt relief plan, for example. In examining the potential implications this legal theory may have on current and future climate-focused regulatory policy, an attorney at CEI, Devin Watkins, was quoted. However, there was no mention of CEI’s fossil fuel ties or the deregulatory agenda of its corporate funders. To be fair, all of the quoted individuals in the article received this same courtesy, but the fact that a corporate funded climate denialist organization was even solicited for their opinion on climate policy is concerning. 

Watkins was again quoted in a Washington Post piece that similarly analyzed the major question doctrine’s implications on attempts to regulate auto emissions. Although the Post was at least willing to describe CEI as a “conservative group,” this characterization still lends credibility to an organization with objectively crackpot views produced by large corporate donations.

Or consider antitrust. Any sensible person would brush off a Mark Zuckerburg-penned op-ed defending Meta’s practice of “innovating” by buying up smaller competitors. But you might be less skeptical when Iian Murray, CEI’s Vice President for Strategy and Senior Fellow, made the same argument in a 2021 Fortune piece. But that’s only because neither Fortune nor Murray disclosed that CEI receives funding from Meta. Whether or not Murray actually believes that antitrust enforcement against Facebook represents an “assault on entrepreneurs” is immaterial to the fact that his judgment on the issue is compromised by financial ties to the firm. Fortune’s failure to acknowledge this conflict of interest effectively allows monopolists like Zuckerberg to launder their talking points through an ostensibly independent third party.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a perfect example of an unfortunate reality in our current political landscape: that there are plenty of individuals and organizations willing to defend the rights of corporations over the public. I, for one, feel that such a blatant disregard for public interests would render these actors unfit to weigh in on public policy. But if media outlets insist on taking CEI and its ilk seriously in this regard, they should also take seriously the conflicts of interest which contextualize, if not directly shape, their analyses.

Furthermore, the combination of oversight hearings against Khan in the House and nominations for Holyoak in the Senate demonstrate that Republicans are not only in thrall to unpopular corporate actors, but that the party’s elites are also entirely committed to a think tank world in which unabashed climate science denialism—a radical ideology if there ever was one—is still alive and well. 

Image: “FTC Headquarters” by Andrea Beaty

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