In 1989, the mega-band Queen sang, “I want it all, and I want it now” – a refrain that perfectly captures the latest budget request sent to the Congress by Lina Khan, President Biden’s top regulator at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The request, sent just last month, seeks a whopping 37% budget increase for the coming 2024 fiscal year.
The $160 million increase over last year’s budget is undeserved and unjustified, and should be swiftly deep-sixed by Congress.
The FTC Chair, long a critic of big businesses, disingenuously recited in her budget request cover letter that the additional taxpayer money was needed so the regulatory agency could “continue to meet the ongoing challenges of its mission to protect consumers and promote competition.” In fact, the FTC under Biden has been moving in the exact opposite direction.
This was made clear recently when the Commission’s leadership moved away from four decades of operating by legal consensus and rescinded an existing, fundamental policy statement that had affirmed the “consumer welfare standard” as the litmus test for whether federal action against companies is or is not warranted.
As noted recently by former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, the consumer welfare standard has been the “guiding principle” of federal antitrust policy for more than 40 years, reflecting the view that the government should intervene in the marketplace only if the consumer is being harmed.
The American people got a firsthand look into the FTC’s new operational standards recently, when the commission appeared to target Elon Musk for disclosing how Twitter’s former leadership colluded with Uncle Sam to restrict and censor Americans’ speech. The Commission issued Musk a subpoena to divulge his communications with journalists that provided evidence of Twitter’s past censorship partnership with the government — a move that the new, Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee accurately viewed as politically motivated.
With the consumer welfare standard now discarded by regulatory fiat, private businesses seeking to lower prices and increase competition through pro-consumer mergers and acquisitions likely will find themselves similarly targeted by the regulatory bullies at the FTC.
The Commission’s recent blocking of the planned merger between Microsoft and game developer Activision, which Japan, Brazil, Serbia, Chile, and other involved jurisdictions already had approved, shows clearly that this new partisan regulatory mission already is accelerating.
Although details of this case suggests this proposed merger will increase consumer choice and improve users’ experiences by reducing Sony PlayStation’s monopolistic marketplace position, such factual data is no longer sufficient for the current FTC, which seems intent on breaking up private companies for purely ideological reasons.
The Committee for Justice went so far as to write, “this case demonstrates how the FTC has strayed far from its consumer protection mission, opting to use antitrust enforcement as a vehicle for micromanaging the economy” instead. Indeed. Given this troubling reality, why would Congress, especially the House under GOP majority control, even consider granting this FTC an additional $160 million?
The FTC’s staff appears to have concerns with the Commission’s current, standard-less and anti-consumer operating policy, with top-level officials leaving the agency at a record pace.
Former FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson resigned in February because, “[u]nder President Biden, FTC leadership has abused the merger review process to impose a tax on all mergers, not only those that hinder competition.” Wilson is far from alone. Recent reports show that over five dozen senior staff attorneys left the commission between 2021 and 2022, making it the most significant staff exodus in over two decades.
Congress most definitely should not increase the FTC’s funding. In fact, its budget should be reduced until the Administration commits to refocus its regulatory powers back to where they should be and have been — protecting consumers’ interests.
Inflation is already causing consumers to pay record prices on everything from eggs to fuel oil. The last thing American consumers need is for Congress to give the White House $160 million more to, among other moves, hire 100 new staffers in the FTC’s misnamed “Bureau of Competition.” This will only further undercut the free marketplace and weaken private businesses even more — a situation in no one’s interest, especially considering the systemic weaknesses in our current economy.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, where he served as a Member of the Judiciary Committee and chaired the Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. Barr also served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.