Top US business lobbyist lambasts Biden’s antitrust ‘over-reach’

Washington’s biggest business lobby group has lashed out at Joe Biden’s administration over its competition policy, signalling that it would fight the “government over-reach” it claimed was threatening the US economic recovery.

“The Federal Trade Commission has taken such an aggressive stance against mergers and acquisitions that small and medium-sized businesses fear they’ll have worked for years to build something and have no exit strategy if they choose to sell,” said Suzanne Clark, in her first annual address as chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Clark attacked “modern-day trustbusters” from both parties, but singled out the FTC, which is chaired by Lina Khan, for trying to enlarge its powers.

Khan took over the commission with a remit to rewrite the way US competition rules are enforced. She has already overturned several FTC policy statements that made it harder for the regulator to block takeovers and is now revising the guidance used by companies to decide whether a merger is legal.

These efforts have sparked increasingly outspoken criticism from the business community. Last November, the Chamber threatened to sue the FTC after the commission wrote to hundreds of business owners warning them against using false advertising and misleading endorsements.

The lobbying group said it would take legal action if that warning was followed up with enforcement action. “If bureaucrats and elected officials don’t stop getting in the way, we will stop them, because what’s at stake is no less than the future of our free market economy,” Clark said on Tuesday.

Lina Khan
Lina Khan, a lawyer and critic of the power wielded by big technology companies, was selected by Joe Biden to lead the Federal Trade Commission © Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/AP

The Chamber has also expressed anger that Rohit Chopra, a former Democratic FTC commissioner, cast several votes even after he had announced his departure from the commission to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The lobby group has accused Biden of interfering with the commission’s impartiality when he signed an executive order instructing regulators to curb monopoly power in several sectors. That order was “based on the false premise that our entire economy is overconcentrated and stagnant”, Clark said.

Sean Heather, the Chamber’s senior vice-president of international regulatory affairs and antitrust, told the Financial Times last month that the FTC was collaborating unfairly with regulators in Europe to knock down potential deals. He said regulators in the US, EU and UK were using a “divide and conquer” strategy to prosecute cases outside their own jurisdictions.

Tuesday’s speech highlighted the growing friction between the business community and the Biden administration, whose early pandemic response and moves to enact a bipartisan infrastructure spending bill had largely received the Chamber’s support.

One source of tension has been the administration’s stalled social spending bill, known as Build Back Better, which would be funded in part by higher corporate taxes. Clark branded the legislation “a proposed partisan tax-and-spending spree to fund a massive expansion of the federal government”. 

Corporate America has been similarly concerned by what it sees as a failure to strike trade deals. The Biden administration was “consumed by caution and internal reviews”, while Europe was “charging ahead” with its trade agreements and China continued to become a more formidable commercial and strategic competitor, Clark said.

The speech contained no condemnation of Republican members of Congress whose continued support of false claims that the 2020 election was rigged against Donald Trump has alienated many business leaders.

However, Clark called for business leaders to defend those elected officials pursuing “common ground” policies. “We have to be as loud as the extremists . . . on the far left and the far right,” she argued.

US citizens also needed to unite behind “our democracy supporting our American enterprise system”, she said. “The US has enough enemies. Let’s stop being our own worst enemy.”

Swamp Notes

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