The bipartisan energy around the most important congressional investigation into the tech industry could be in jeopardy.
As the House Judiciary Committee's nearly yearlong antitrust investigation into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple nears completion, some Republicans involved have started to distance themselves from the Democrats on the committee, and even the probe itself.
That distance was brought into sharp relief Wednesday, when every Republican member of the antitrust subcommittee pushed back against the Democratic chairman in charge of the investigation. In letters to the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, the six Republicans on the antitrust subcommittee, including ranking member Jim Jordan, derided recent Democratic proposals to pause mergers amid the pandemic.
Rep. David Cicilline, the top Democrat on the antitrust subcommittee, recently proposed such a moratorium, as did the progressives Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Cicilline on Tuesday criticized a potential takeover of Grubhub by Uber, calling it "a new low in pandemic profiteering."
The Republicans on the antitrust subcommittee disagree. "These lawmakers … are using the crisis as a pretense to rail against firms being free to make decisions they perceive to be in their best interests," the Republicans wrote in their letter. They added that they believe the federal regulators in charge of antitrust law are conducting proper reviews amid the pandemic, and delaying M&A activity could "stunt economic development and development."
The merger moratorium did not even make it into the Democrats' economic stimulus package proposal, which was unveiled on Tuesday. But the letter signals that, despite a bipartisan "techlash" in Washington, many Republicans' pro-business inclinations could yet prevent them from getting behind the farthest-reaching proposals to rein in tech.
Though Republicans and Democrats have coalesced around heated criticism of Facebook and Google, particularly since 2016, significant differences in approach and style have emerged — and there are serious limits as to how far many Republicans will go in calling for government regulation of the tech industry.
Jordan, a fervent Trump ally as well as a legendary libertarian and congressional investigator, has found himself at the center of a pressing question for Republicans: How should they think about the tech industry? It's a tense spot as his libertarian, free-market ideology runs into the culture war around the power of big tech.
Republicans, including Jordan and most importantly President Trump, have loudly and frequently derided the big social media platforms for exhibiting "bias" against conservatives. Democrats, meanwhile, have focused more ire on the working conditions within tech companies and big tech's unprecedented corporate power.
But the policy conclusions on either side of the aisle are sometimes far apart.
When Democrats and several Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee threatened to subpoena Jeff Bezos for testimony at the beginning of this month, Jordan's signature was noticeably absent, though three Republicans signed onto the letter. A GOP aide familiar with thinking on the Republican side of the committee told Protocol at the beginning of May that Jordan disagrees with the Democrats' approaches on "price-gouging and merger reviews."
And in February, when Rep. Doug Collins was still the top Republican on the committee before he stepped down to pursue a Senate seat, top Republicans threatened to abandon the tech antitrust investigation altogether after the Democratic chairman of the full House Judiciary Committee, Jerold Nadler, appeared to call for "breaking up all the large companies" at an event.
There is still significant GOP support for the probe. Several Republican members of the subcommittee have been supportive of the investigation itself. Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, recently told Politico that "support is growing" among conservatives for tweaking antitrust laws. And Rep. Matt Gaetz, another Trump ally, has continually criticized big tech and supported Cicilline's efforts.
Matt Stoller, a leading antitrust advocate, told Protocol last week that he sees "skepticism" toward big tech in the House Freedom Caucus, a small-government block of conservatives in Congress that Jordan co-founded.
"Big tech's obviously a big policy problem for both sides," he said. "I could see [Jordan] moving one way or the other." As a member of the minority party in the House, ultimately Jordan is not in control of the investigation and will not dictate its conclusion. But Stoller said that it "matters" if Jordan ultimately dissents, after the investigation was bipartisan for months under Collins.
Jesse Blumenthal, who oversees tech policy for the Charles Koch-funded group Stand Together, said he thinks Jordan is deeply skeptical of the antitrust probe, and will balk at a "politicized" process in which Congress "comes in and decides 'this is a good company' and 'this is a bad company.'"
The letters on Wednesday mark Jordan's most significant public comments about antitrust issues since replacing Collins, and there's likely far more to come — particularly if Bezos is compelled to testify before the committee. For now, staffers from both parties are continuing to work side-by-side on the "fact-finding" phase of the investigation, which will culminate soon in a final congressional report. They could also propose legislation to update antitrust laws to better rein in Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.Cicilline this month said he expects the committee's report by the end of spring. The Republicans have not yet promised that they will sign onto the final product.