Biden proposed a big funding increase for US antitrust enforcers

US president Joe Biden wants to give American antitrust enforcers an extra $227 million to crack down on monopolies this year. Biden included the request — which represents a 44% jump in funding for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s antitrust division — in the proposed budget he sent to Congress on March 28.

Biden has vowed to restore competition to the American economy. He appointed Lina Khan, a prominent Amazon critic, as head of the FTC, and staffed the White House with a new school of antitrust crusaders that believes in taking a harder line against big companies. He issued an executive order on July 9 directing federal agencies to set rules designed to lower prices and boost competition among powerful companies in sectors ranging from agriculture to pharmaceuticals to tech, remarking that “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation.”

Now, the White House wants to fund its antitrust ambitions with what it calls “historic increases” in the budgets of the two biggest monopoly-busting agencies in the US government, doling out an extra $139 million to the FTC and $88 million to the DOJ antitrust division. Congress, however, will craft its own budget — and lawmakers don’t always pay much attention to White House budget proposals, which are often seen as wishlists that signal a president’s policy priorities.

Last year, Biden asked for an 11% budget increase for the FTC and a 9% increase for the DOJ antitrust wing. He got neither. Congress didn’t pass a budget at all, and instead has funded the government through a series of so-called “continuing resolutions,” which extend the previous budget and keep funding levels flat.

Antitrust enforcers need more money to take on big businesses

Antitrust lawsuits are slow, expensive ordeals. Often, private defendants can afford to spend more money on lawyers and economic consultants to bolster their case than federal agencies can. Meanwhile, the FTC has faced budget shortfalls since 2020 that limit its ability to take on big cases, even as the agency is gearing up for a landmark lawsuit against Facebook. The DOJ has filed its own big lawsuit against Google.

“Can you imagine the resources Google and Facebook can bring to bear on these cases?” said William Kovacic, a former FTC commissioner who now teaches law at George Washington University. “They will marshal the finest powers that the private bar and the economic consultancies can provide and they will be relentless and skillful in defending their conduct.”

Without extra funding, Kovacic warned in 2020, the FTC and DOJ won’t be able to bring as many big cases as Biden and his antitrust hardliners might like. To staff their legal battles against the biggest US companies, they’ll have to pull staff away from other antitrust priorities, like investigating and challenging new mergers.

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