US needs to take on monopolies, presidential candidates Warren, Klobuchar, others say

30 March 2019 00:00

Democrats vying to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 told Iowa voters Saturday that the US needs to rethink its antitrust laws.

“I think we are now entering what is essentially a new Gilded Age and we need to take on the power of these monopolies,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said, highlighting recent mergers in the agriculture and transportation industries.

Klobuchar was among five candidates to appear at an event in Storm Lake, Iowa focusing on competition and policies to help rural America. While Iowa is among the smaller US states - population 3.2 million - it has an outsized influence in American presidential politics because of the Iowa Caucuses, the first primaries to be held each presidential cycle to select the Democratic and Republican candidates.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, best known for proposing the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has proposed breaking up major tech companies such as Google and Facebook. At the forum Saturday, she emphasized a need to break up Bayer-Monsanto, which merged last year. Earlier this week, she wrote another proposal on Medium calling for a breakup of the newly formed company.

“The Justice Department in Monsanto-Bayer, when they wanted to merge the Justice Department stepped up, had a report, said this is going to be really bad for farmers,” Warren said. “And yet, what do they do? They approved of the merger and that just made everything harder."

At the forum, she said vertical integration of the agricultural industry is “putting the squeeze on” small American farms. She also railed against foreign ownership of American farmland and said she would like to put a stop to it.

“Think about it this way, right now, the farm land that’s already in foreign ownership, if it were all put in one place, is the size of Virginia,” Warren said. “And that not only creates a problem for farming communities and for our food security, it creates a threat to the safety and the defense of the United States of America.”

Klobuchar, currently the top Democrat in the Senate focused on antitrust policy, highlighted changing antitrust law as a key focus of her presidential campaign. She mentioned a number of proposals, among them comprehensive privacy legislation, the federal data breach notification regime and a proposal to change the standard for mergers that would require companies to offer more proof that a deal would benefit competition.

“I just think we’re getting to the point where you know you’re not going to be able to get a fair deal because you have less and less competition,” Klobuchar said. “We need more resources in the [Federal Trade Commission] and we need more resources at the Justice Department. ... The second thing that you need is an administration that is willing to get actually it done.”

Klobuchar noted as problematic the recent mergers between Dow-Dupont and Bayer-Monsanto. But the problem is broader than just agriculture, she said, citing rising pharmaceutical prices and increased concentration among online travel booking websites as examples.

“The best thing is to change enforcement and change the law,” she said. “I would like to really change these standards so we can take a different approach to these companies.”

Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who served as the secretary for Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration, spent most of his time focused on healthcare and immigration. But Castro also said he believes antitrust enforcers should focus more on how small businesses are impacted in competition analysis.

“I also believe - and others like Senator Warren have been fantastic on this - that when we analyze antitrust that we not only concern ourselves with the end-consumer price and choice but also what is happening along the production chain and the impact on smaller business within that production chain,” Castro said. “I want to make sure we have folks at the Department of Justice and other departments who understand that philosophy.”

John Delaney, a former entrepreneur who served as a member of the House of Representatives for Maryland, also spoke at the forum, but didn’t address antitrust or competition policy.

Tim Ryan, a House member from Ohio, did, but only briefly.

“I’m looking at what’s happening in rural America with regard to concentration of power and monopolies, and you know what they call this in Youngstown?” Ryan said. “It’s a scam. It’s an absolute scam.”

Ryan, who hasn’t officially announced he is running in the 2020 presidential election, proposed going to rural America with a plan that would open markets and invest in conservation stewardship programs.

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