Technology

Progressive fighting turns personal on internal call over antitrust bills

A heated debate among House liberals is threatening to derail antitrust legislation before it gets to the floor and undermine unity within the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The clash came Tuesday during the caucus’s weekly phone call and concerned a package of anti-monopoly bills approved by the House Judiciary Committee last month.

On one side were the authors of those bills, while Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents a Silicon Valley district, was on the other.

During the discussion on the package led by House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Lofgren criticized the bills as rushed before being cut off by Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) twice, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation.

A Democratic staffer on the call disputed that characterization, saying that Jayapal was just reminding Lofgren that other lawmakers were in the queue to speak during the hourlong call that featured a sizable portion of the caucus’s nearly 100 members.

The conversation then shifted to more personal terms when Cicilline said he was offended by Lofgren’s depiction of the bills being shoddily constructed after the 18-month investigation into digital marketplace competition that his subcommittee conducted. 

Cicilline also, according to one member on the call, implied that Lofgren was opposing the bills because of the donations she’s gotten as a Silicon Valley-area representative. The staffer on the call noted that Lofgren had seemingly joked about those ties earlier in the conversation.

“I was surprised at the kind of personal way that Cicilline attacked Lofgren,” the member said. “That’s sort of out of bounds. It’s out of line.”

Details of the fight first spilled into the public eye through a report in The Intercept.

Lofgren’s opposition to the majority of the antitrust package — which is composed of six bipartisan bills — was not a secret before Tuesday’s call.

She, along with several Democratic members of the California delegation, voted against advancing all but one of the bills to a floor vote. That opposition, coupled with slim Republican backing and lukewarm reception from Democratic leadership, has narrowed the path to passage for the more aggressive reforms in the package.

Jayapal is planning a progressive caucus briefing with staff from the antitrust subcommittee to walk through the bills and detail what they would accomplish relatively soon in hopes of getting the group on the same page. This week’s spat could very well make that goal more difficult.

“When these things happen it’s making it harder for us to get the consensus,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who was on the call, told The Hill in an interview. “And right now, there’s a huge division in the caucus. It’s unfortunate.”

While most CPC discussions don’t devolve like this one did, “tensions like this have been there” for a while, one source in touch with the group’s leadership told The Hill. 

The source predicted, however, that the “caucus will get stronger over time.”

To some, that means more solid commitments toward a slate of truly progressive policies during the Biden administration. There’s also a hope that the caucus will continue to expand. 

Progressives are keeping an eye on one race in particular — the special election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, where Nina Turner is competing to replace Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge — as having the potential to add a strong new member to the caucus. 

Others in the progressive space are worried that the particular disagreement over antitrust cannot be papered over that easily. 

“It’s becoming a core issue,” one strategist told The Hill, adding that these kinds of policy fights are healthy for the caucus.

The argument playing out in public has also worried some progressive watchers.

“It’s distracting for us when disagreements play out in the media, especially in the districts we represent. This leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable against Republican attacks,” said Michael Ceraso, a strategist who served on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) presidential campaign in 2016.

“Elected officials are often pulled between much needed reform and the priorities of their district, leaving them in a position where they have to compromise. That’s politics. When a colleague calls that out as hypocrisy but accepts money from special interests that you’re trying to regulate, it’s hard for voters to take you seriously,” Ceraso added.

The Democratic staffer told The Hill that concern over the antitrust disagreement hurting the caucus more broadly is overblown.

“There’s not always going to be a unified front,” they explained. “It’s hard to get 100 people to agree on every issue.”

The caucus has recently taken steps to improve organization and effectiveness. Starting this congressional cycle, members are required to vote as a bloc on issues endorsed by two-thirds of the caucus at least two-thirds of the time or face potential expulsion.

Getting that kind of unity on antitrust is going to be difficult, though, even if most CPC members — including Lofgren — support reforms such as the kind included in President Biden’s recent executive order.

A source with knowledge of the California lawmaker’s thinking said that the antitrust leaders are approaching winning members over in a counterproductive way.

“It seems like the backers of these bills do not want to have honest deliberation on the policy and the substance,” they said. “To me that’s going to be the long-term problem for them.”

The Democratic staffer argued that this week’s call was an effort to do just that, saying that Cicilline as well as Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) went into the details of their bills after Lofgren spoke.

For Khanna, who believes that the bills are not ready in their current iteration, more and better discussion is needed.

“We need to find a way to come together and show respect,” Khanna said. “The main beneficiary of that call was tech.”

Hanna Trudo contributed. 

Tags amazon Antitrust enforcement Apple Bernie Sanders Big tech California Congressional Progressive Caucus David Cicilline Facebook google Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Joe Neguse Marcia Fudge Pramila Jayapal Ro Khanna Silicon Valley Zoe Lofgren
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