In an interview with ProMarket, Republican congressman Ken Buck explains why antitrust enforcement is so crucial to the US economy and American democracy, expands on the lobbying fight in Congress around the sweeping antitrust legislation he introduced with Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, and predicts that Congress will likely pass three major antitrust bills by the August recess.
As Congress moves toward historic action on Big Tech, Colorado Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) has become one of the key members in the emerging bipartisan movement to rejuvenate US antitrust enforcement. As the ranking member of the House antitrust subcommittee, Buck collaborated with subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI) on a package of sweeping antitrust bills that would, if passed, radically transform how the four major Big Tech platforms—Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple—operate and force them to curtail certain anticompetitive behaviors, such as favoring their own products or services in a way that harms competition.
A four-term congressman from a rural district in eastern Colorado, Buck has made a name for himself in the last couple of years as a frequent and vocal critic of Big Tech’s monopoly power, spending much of the past year and a half trying to rally as many of his fellow Republicans to support increased antitrust enforcement and even going so far as to call for the break up of the major platforms at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Viewing the conduct of Big Tech as “an injustice,” he describes his fight against the platforms as a personal one and purposefully avoids using their products and services as much as possible.
What drew Buck, a staunch conservative and Trump supporter, into taking such a leadership position in pushing for antitrust reform? At the Stigler Center’s annual antitrust conference last week, where he was a keynote speaker, Buck said it was his long career as a prosecutor that alerted him to the dangers of Big Tech’s conduct, as well as his feeling—shared by many Americans of all political stripes, he noted—that monopoly power threatens the health of the US economy and endangers its democracy.
To learn more, we sat down with Buck for a brief interview. In his interview with ProMarket, Buck gave an update regarding the lobbying fight in Congress around the proposed antitrust bills. “What’s really happening right now is you’ve got the establishment leadership in both parties that are fighting this, because they’re so entrenched with the money coming in from Big Tech companies. And then you’ve got some people who just don’t give a darn—I’m happy to leave and go do something else, spend time with my grandkids and other things. There is a fight going on, a food fight—it’s just not a partisan food fight. And it is a food fight that is going to be more evident as these bills get closer to passing.”
Nevertheless, Buck predicted that Congress will likely pass three major antitrust bills—including the American innovation and Choice Online Act, which would prohibit anticompetitive self-preferencing—by the August recess. Buck also condemned tech companies as “bad actors” who “lie, cheat, and steal” and explained why corporate monopolies scare ordinary Americans.
[The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity]
Q: You’ve previously described yourself in interviews as a pro-business Republican. Do you still define yourself that way?
I would call myself a free-market Republican, I guess, more than pro-business.
Q: Can you explain what “free-market Republican” means to you?
It means that I think the less government interference, the better, and that the market is the best guide to solving business issues.
Q: And yet, with Rep. Cicilline, you introduced a package of reform-oriented antitrust bills that would represent a big shift in the way that antitrust is being enforced in the United States.
I don’t think Congress has done much in 120 years. So the big shift is that we actually do our job and give the courts more guidance on what antitrust law should look like.
Q: Do you see any contradiction between you being a free-market Republican and your call for breaking up the Big Tech platforms?
Well, there are a whole lot of things that need to happen before we get to breaking up tech platforms. But yes, every day, I think: “What am I doing?” I have this conflict within me, because the reality is that these companies have gotten to a point where the market can no longer make the adjustments that need to be made. And so, in order to create a market and enhance competition, something has to happen. I’m not stepping in to punish success—I celebrate success. I think it’s important that we have a reset, so that competition can thrive.
Q: One of the biggest changes that we’ve seen in antitrust in the past five years is the growth of a bipartisan movement to tackle monopolization, especially Big Tech. How do you explain that?
I think the American people sense that something is wrong. They can’t define the Sherman Act or the Clayton Act, or other principles of antitrust, but they have a sense that something’s wrong. And I think both sides of the aisle recognize that, sometimes in very similar ways and sometimes in different ways, but both sides of the aisle recognize it and are moving forward as a result.
Policy is downstream of public opinion, and both Republicans and Democrats are getting the same message from our constituents: something needs to be done.
Q: Antitrust is popular. Even a recent Google-backed poll inadvertently attested to its popularity. How do you explain the fact that antitrust is so consistently popular, and yet Congress has not done much about it in the past century or so?
[Buck rubs his thumb over his index finger] There’s a lot of money that is trying to stifle whatever progress we can make.
Q: Do you think that the bipartisan support for antitrust will result in more funding going to the antitrust division of the DOJ?
Yes, that will happen. Not just the Department of Justice but also the Federal Trade Commission. The COMPETES Act, the language that has been agreed upon whenever it moves will have those funding provisions.
Q: In the past couple of years, you have taken a leading position on antitrust issues. What made you do that?
[Laughs] Sadomasochism. I think that I was compelled to get involved because of my background. But I think that these companies are lying, cheating, and stealing—that’s the way we put it in the West. They are bad actors, and they get away with it because of their size and the dominance that they have, and their particular area. I think that more Americans, frankly, should be standing up and wanting to do something about this, and I think they will. I think we are gaining momentum in this area, and I hope my party, when we take control in November, I hope we will continue down this path. But it’s just a personal thing with me—I’m really a prosecutor pretending to be a Congressman. I see this and the victims of this as a cause worth fighting for.
Q: You mentioned the money that goes into trying to stifle antitrust enforcement. What changed? Why are we seeing a resurgence of antitrust activity in Congress, when there’s probably more money coming in than ever before?
There is. And what is so extreme about the money is they have bought up conservative think tanks, they have bought up liberal think tanks, they just spread their money all over DC and the country. What’s changed is that there is more and more information available to Americans about the effect of Facebook and Instagram and other platforms on teenage girls and suicide rates. When stories hit the press about how Google is working with the Chinese Communist Party to develop a search platform that censors certain information, and yet refuses to work with the US military because it doesn’t share their values, things like that get under Americans’ skin. The more information that comes out about how these companies operate, the more Americans want to see some change.
Q: Is this something you hear about from your own constituents?
Absolutely, absolutely, and I consider my constituents to be all of Colorado because I travel a lot in Colorado. Liberal, conservative, rural, urban—it is something that scares them.
Q: Do you see just anger at Big Tech or monopolies in general?
All monopolies. Big corporate America scares people. What we’ve seen in the last 30 years is the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries. We’ve seen many things that concern people, but Big Tech is identifiable. US Steel isn’t really identified as a culprit, even though a lot of steel jobs have moved offshore, as well as other types of manufacturing. But Big Tech is something that they see every day and can identify as part of big corporate America.
Q: Are you optimistic about passing the package of antitrust bills you co-sponsored with Rep. Cicilline?
I am optimistic we will get some things done. We won’t get as much done as we should. But we will get some things done before the August recess.
Q: You told Time that the American innovation and Choice Online Act is going to be passed before then.
My name is not Nancy Pelosi, so I don’t control when things hit the floor. But my best guess is that it hits the floor before August.
Q: Would that be your top priority in terms of the bills that are now being debated?
I don’t have priorities other than trying to set this forward. But when you talk about impact and viability, what I call the non-discrimination bill has the greatest impact and viability. There are other bills that have impact but no viability, like the structural separation bill, and there are some bills that have viability but don’t get a lot done. But that particular bill gets a lot done and is gaining popularity.
Q: Given the major impact it would have on the business model of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple, are you optimistic that this will actually pass in its current form?
I am optimistic that it will pass and be signed. I’m optimistic that several years down the road, when everybody’s finished litigating these bills and trying to figure out what they really mean, we will get to a good place.
Look, the people who run these companies are really smart people. The reason they got to where they are is that they were able to make adjustments that other companies weren’t able to make, and they will figure out how to make some more adjustments. Hopefully, what happens, and this is really the biggest part of the issue—and I don’t mean to disparage in any way the enforcers that have been there in the last five, six years—but there was a period of time where the enforcers were risk-averse. And hopefully, what this movement has done is to give a little heart to the lion so that the enforcers will get to work.
Q: What is your view on the Biden administration’s antitrust policy so far?
I think the Biden administration has taken what the Trump administration did and has moved forward with it. I think that if you put [the head of antitrust division at DOJ under Biden] Jonathan Kanter and [[the head of antitrust division at DOJ under Trump] Makan Delrahim in a room together, you wouldn’t know who’s a Democrat who’s a Republican. I think that what was lacking was the eight years before, when Big Tech really made huge gains in terms of mergers, but I think that the last five and a half years have been fairly consistent.
Q: How representative are your views on monopolies and Big Tech of the current Republican Party?
I think the Republican view of antitrust is evolving. And I think that there are more and more people that recognize that something has to be done. The obvious alternative is that we form some sort of Interstate Transportation Commission—just as they put railroads under that, we’re going to put the platforms under some sort of commission—and that’s a huge mistake. I’m pro-competition and pro-market, and I want to see us solve this problem with those kinds of tools rather than more government.
Q: Politico reported that you don’t use or try to avoid using Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook products as much as you can. To what lengths do you go? Because sometimes you have to go to extreme lengths to avoid these companies.
Personally, I don’t have a Facebook account. I don’t have a [personal] Twitter account. I don’t have Amazon Prime or use Amazon. Although it’s funny, I buy some products that Amazon delivers, even though I purposely went around Amazon and paid even more. And I have an Apple phone. There are just things that, morally, I think are important. And I feel so strongly about these companies that I don’t want to reward them and their bad behavior.
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