President Joe Biden announced a sweeping new antitrust executive order Friday intended "to promote competition in the American economy, which will lower prices for families, increase wages for workers, and promote innovation and even faster economic growth."
Biden wants to start breaking down monopolies, fight corporate consolidation, and give small businesses and start-ups a better shot at competing in the marketplace. It's broadly aimed at monopolies and concentrated markets in industries including agriculture, airlines, broadband, banking, and health care. "The heart of American capitalism is a simple idea: open and fair competition," Biden said in remarks on Friday afternoon. "Capitalism without competition isn't capitalism, it's exploitation."
The order is intended, according to the White House fact sheet, to:
- Make it easier to change jobs and help raise wages by banning or limiting non-compete agreements and unnecessary, cumbersome occupational licensing requirements that impede economic mobility.
- Lower prescription drug prices by supporting state and tribal programs that will import safe and cheaper drugs from Canada.
- Save Americans with hearing loss thousands of dollars by allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter at drug stores.
- Save Americans money on their internet bills by banning excessive early termination fees, requiring clear disclosure of plan costs to facilitate comparison shopping, and ending landlord exclusivity arrangements that stick tenants with only a single internet option.
- Make it easier for people to get refunds from airlines and to comparison shop for flights by requiring clear upfront disclosure of add-on fees.
- Make it easier and cheaper to repair items you own by limiting manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs of their products.
- Make it easier and cheaper to switch banks by requiring banks to allow customers to take their financial transaction data with them to a competitor.
- Empower family farmers and increase their incomes by strengthening the Department of Agriculture’s tools to stop the abusive practices of some meat processors.
- Increase opportunities for small businesses by directing all federal agencies to promote greater competition through their procurement and spending decisions.
The order signals Biden's intent for his Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to enforce existing antitrust laws "vigorously" and emphasizes that "the law allows them to challenge prior bad mergers that past Administrations did not previously challenge." It directs the agencies to focus enforcement in particular "on labor markets, agricultural markets, healthcare markets (which includes prescription drugs, hospital consolidation, and insurance), and the tech sector." And it creates a new entity, the White House Competition Council to coordinate the implementation of the order and "the federal government's response to the rising power of large corporations in the economy."
Some of the highlights include calling for a restoration of the net neutrality rules the Obama FCC implemented and Trump's FCC rescinded and a new "Right to Repair" rule for consumers. In addition to reimposing net neutrality, the order "encourages" the FCC to prevent internet service providers from making exclusive deals or collusive arrangements with landlords to shut out competition from other ISPs, leaving tenants with only one option. It also asks the FCC to revive another Obama-era effort, a "Broadband Nutrition Label" which "provides basic information about the internet service offered so people can compare options," increasing transparency and requiring providers to report prices and subscription rates to the FCC. The order also asks the FCC to limit excessive early termination fees ISPs charge for people switching providers.
Right of repair is an issue particularly important to small farmers who have been held hostage by farm implement manufacturers and dealers. As technology has developed, farming machinery has become more complex and more computerized. Manufacturers and dealers have made the tools and software for repairing tractors and implements proprietary, at great cost and inconvenience to the farmer. "For example," the White House explains, "when certain tractors detect a failure, they cease to operate until a dealer unlocks them. That forcers farmers to pay dealer rates for repairs that they could have made themselves, or that an independent repair shop could have done more cheaply." The order calls on the FTC to limit the power of equipment manufacturers—and potentially not just farm implements. It could ripple all the down to cars and iPhones.
The order will require more transparency from airlines on fees for things like extra baggage and Wi-Fi, and make it easier for consumers to get refunds when the service is substandard or when trips are delayed. That was another proposed rule from Obama's last term that Trump terminated.
In addition to right of repair, new agriculture rules would make it easier for the USDA to challenge unfair and/or deceptive processes by meat processors and make it easier for farmers to file complaints or sue. The USDA is developing rules under this order to "increase opportunities for farmers to access markets and receive a fair return, including supporting alternative food distribution systems like farmers markets and developing standards and labels so that consumers can choose to buy products that treat farmers fairly."
There's much more: cracking down on noncompete agreements that try to keep workers form changing jobs within their industry; making state occupational licensing requirements for jobs easer to transfer between states so that, for example, health care workers could offer Telehealth services across state lines; and making financial services more convenient and transparent for consumers, including making it easier to access their own financial data and to switch banks.
Biden insisted Friday that "competition works," and has made the U.S. the "wealthiest and most innovative nation in history." This executive order, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday, has the "overarching objective" of making sure the "President is encouraging competition in industries around the country."