Policy

Big business is fuming about Biden's tech agenda

The CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went after the FTC, SEC, CFPB and other agencies that are ready to regulate tech.

An exterior view of the Commerce department building

The Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobbying group that has long opposed most regulations, is pushing back on government scrutiny of tech.

Photo: Ian Hutchinson/Unsplash

It’s not just the Federal Trade Commission anymore: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest and most powerful business group in Washington, said it planned to push back on “the threat of government overreach” at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Justice Department and every other pillar of President Joe Biden’s tech agenda.

In the Chamber’s annual “State of American Business” speech on Tuesday, CEO Suzanne Clark, who had already been escalating her rhetoric against the FTC’s newly aggressive agenda, said the group would stop “bureaucrats and elected officials” who she cast as getting in the way of American enterprise.

“We will challenge overreach and defend the rule of law at every turn, in every agency, with every tool at our disposal — in Washington, in statehouses and in the courts,” Clark said, her first time giving the group’s yearly address. “What’s at stake is no less than the future of our free-market economy.”

Under Clark’s predecessor, Tom Donohue, the speech served as an opportunity for the Chamber to flaunt its pro-business policy priorities during the post-holiday lull. Speaking at the group’s marble headquarters within sight of the White House, he regularly called for lower taxes, more trade deals, increased high-skilled immigration and boosted infrastructure investment — and issued more or less explicit threats about how the lobbying behemoth and frequent litigator would apply its resources to stop regulation it didn’t like.

Clark, who became CEO last March, continued the trend and has upped her rhetoric since November, when she threatened lawsuits over what she called the FTC’s “abuse of power.” The commission, under Democratic Chair Lina Khan, has taken up more expansive theories of antitrust, applied more scrutiny to mergers and acquisitions and invoked long-dormant or controversial powers.

The FTC and Chamber have long tussled over their opposing views on regulation and antitrust enforcement. On Tuesday, though, Clark also called out the SEC, which is bringing scrutiny to crypto and large tech companies including Meta, as well as considering more transparency rules for unicorns that haven’t gone public. Clark also had stern words for the CFPB — now led by a long-time tech foe who has questioned Big Tech companies about their data practices and made it easier for tech whistleblowers to reach out. And Clark also warned about the Justice Department, which shares antitrust responsibilities with the FTC. The department’s antitrust division is also headed by a longtime enemy of Google.

In her speech, Clark also derided White House’s July executive order on competition, which targeted not just tech antitrust but also issues such as net neutrality and privacy, as well as increased market concentration in agriculture, airlines and pharmaceuticals.

“We have leaders who think that government needs to step in and impose a heavy hand,” Clark said. “The Biden administration introduced a sweeping executive order based on the false premise that our entire economy is over-concentrated and stagnant.”

Clark argued that big businesses don’t squash smaller ones but actually rely on them, and vice versa. She also dismissed “modern-day trust-busters on Capitol Hill from both parties [who] think all big is bad and necessarily a threat to small.”

The Chamber, which oversees a vast network of state and local business groups, has millions of members, the overwhelming majority of which are smaller businesses. In Washington, however, the group is often associated with the biggest businesses and their priorities, and it has topped the list of lobbying spenders in all but one year since 2001. The group’s board draws heavily on big businesses and large tech companies, including Meta, Microsoft, IBM and AT&T.

Ahead of the speech, Public Citizen, a consumer group that has for decades been among the Chamber’s foremost antagonists and boogeymen, released an analysis finding that known members of the organization “have violated state and federal law at least 15,895 times and racked up penalties totaling over $154 billion since 2000.” The report also suggested the business group clashes with the FTC because the Chamber’s ranks “are filled with corporate wrongdoers.”

In a statement, the Chamber said the “wild allegation is patently false” and argued that its pushback instead started because the FTC’s Khan is “charting a radical departure from the agency’s core mission” and creating uncertainty for American business.

The Chamber’s statement and Clark’s speech echo rhetoric from some Republican lawmakers who have grown increasingly personal in their attacks on White House’s picks for key tech regulation spots, delaying the administration’s ability to start putting its agenda into place.

During her speech, Clark also said the Chamber would soon announce a commission on artificial intelligence, particularly as it applies to the workplace, and called for “a tough stance on cyber threats.”

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