Can Biden Coop Up the Monopolies?

Date01 November 2021
AuthorCortellessa, Eric

The administration and a bipartisan Congress want to bring relief to livestock farmers. Big Ag lobbyists want to stop them.

In 2012, a young researcher at what was then the New America Foundation's Open Markets program published an expose in the Washington Monthly about the plight of chicken farmers and ranchers who were being crushed by Big Ag monopolies. It described a reality in which the people responsible for the food most Americans eat are trapped in a web of exploitation that has not only battered their livelihoods but also has jacked up the prices for consumers and undermined the welfare of animals.

The story went on to explain how the Obama administration and its agriculture secretary at the time, Tom Vilsack, took aim against this exploitation by trying to update the rules of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA), a law passed in 1921 to protect farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders in the livestock, meat, and poultry industries from "unfair, deceptive, unjustly discriminatory and monopolistic practices." The effort, however, was derailed once the large agribusinesses deployed their lobbying forces to Capitol Hill and stopped anything meaningful from getting done.

Now, it's 2021, and the writer of that piece, Lina Khan, is no longer an unknown D.C. policy wonk, but chair of the Federal Trade Commission, one of the federal government's two main antitrust enforcement agencies. And on July 9, President Joe Biden, who appointed Khan to her role, issued an executive order containing 72 separate initiatives to crack down on consolidation across the American economy.

One of those guidelines instructs the Department of Agriculture, again headed by Vilsack, to update the rules of the PSA along almost precisely the same lines the Obama administration tried.

If the past is prologue, the Biden administration will face a similar battle getting the rule changes enacted. The difference this time, however, is that the effort will have more firepower on its side. Anti-monopolism was a fringe movement in Washington in 2009. There was little to no momentum to mount a battle over changing the rules to an obscure law from the 1920s to protect farmers. All that's changed. Biden has clearly made antitrust a featured part of his domestic agenda, and there is growing awareness in both parties in Congress about the dangers of today's Gilded Age-level corporate concentration, with sweeping antitrust bills gathering bipartisan support in both houses.

But as multiple sources deeply entrenched in the fight have told the Washington Monthly, it is far from a sure thing. Big Ag monopolists will not go gently into that good night--and they will pour the same money and resources and deploy...

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