Ken Buck is staring down Big Tech companies. And powerful people in his political party

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck found himself in an unusual place this week, defending his work with Democrats to rein in some of the wealthiest corporations in world history and standing opposite many friends and fellow conservatives in Congress.

The House Judiciary Committee spent much of the week debating and passing a suite of legislation that, taken together, constitutes the largest anti-monopoly effort by Congress in a generation. The legislation is aimed at breaking up four tech giants — Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon — worth $6 trillion.

“This legislation represents a scalpel, not a chainsaw, to deal with the most important aspects of antitrust reform,” Buck told the committee Wednesday. “We’re giving the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission the tools they need to restore the free market, incentivize innovation and give small businesses a fair shot against oligarchs like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.”

No Republican in Congress has done more this year to label Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon monopolies and to construct a roadmap for breaking them up — a crackdown on big businesses more commonly favored by liberals. Buck, who represents the Eastern Plains, has had mixed success convincing his fellow conservatives that helping the government crack down on corporations is best.

“Do I like not getting sleep? No. Do I like arguing with my friends? No,” Buck said in an interview after two long days of Judiciary Committee hearings, which ended with his bills passing. “But do I think this is the right way to do it and do I think that this is really important legislation? I do.”

Unlikely partners

The House’s subcommittee on antitrust (the area of law focused on monopolies) is chaired by Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Buck is the panel’s top Republican. After a 16-month investigation by the subcommittee found the four tech giants act like monopolies, to the detriment of small businesses and consumers, Cicilline and Buck introduced six bills to push back.

“You can’t find two people who are more different than David Cicilline and Ken Buck. If you look at our voting records, I bet we have a similar vote maybe 10% of the time,” Buck said.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., talks to reporters just outside the House chamber after a resolution calling for the removal of President Donald Trump from office was blocked by Republicans, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is calling for congressional action to rein in President Donald Trump after inciting last week’s deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, which Buck is cosponsoring, was introduced in tandem with a fellow Coloradan, Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette. It would force large corporations to pay higher fees when they merge or acquire new companies. That would mean more money for the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission.

An earlier version of the bill passed the Senate unanimously, so it’s the likeliest of the six bills to become law. It’s also the least impactful — providing more funding without changing the rules of antitrust.

“This bill is a clarion call to our regulators, to our enforcement agencies — mainly the FTC — to step up and do what is necessary to protect our small businesses, to protect innovation, to protect consumers and ultimately, to protect our economy,” Neguse said during a House hearing Wednesday.

Some of the other bills go much farther and will require more legislative finesse to turn into law. The Ending Platform Monopolies Act would allow the Justice Department and FTC to break up tech companies that sell their products on platforms they operate, such as Amazon, which sells its products on Amazon’s marketplace. Another controversial bill, the Platform Competition and Opportunity Act, would prevent the tech giants from acquiring some top competitors.

Another bill would allow users to keep the data they generate on a website, such as Facebook, and take it with them when they close their account, similar to how cell phone numbers are transferable.

“Amazon is gargantuan”

By working with Democrats and against big businesses, Buck has found himself on an island with few Republican friends. The loudest critic of the anti-monopoly bills is Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and conservative stalwart that Buck calls a political “hero” of his. The two cofounded the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and have campaigned together but don’t see eye to eye on tech.

“Big Tech censors conservatives. These bills don’t fix that problem, they make it worse. They don’t break up Big Tech. They don’t stop censorship,” Jordan told the committee Wednesday.

As the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jordan holds considerable sway among conservatives and has been “putting tremendous pressure on Republicans” to oppose the six bills, according to Mike Davis, founder of the Internet Accountability Project, a conservative group critical of Big Tech.

Buck was one of only three Republicans to vote for the American Choice and Innovation Online Act, making it illegal for tech companies to highlight their products over others online, such as Google placing its own websites over competitors’ when people search on Google.

Buck was one of only two Republicans — joined by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — to support the Ending Platform Monopolies Act on Thursday. The bill passed by the narrowest of margins, 21-20.

Several Republicans said they don’t want to give the government more power over businesses. Others defended the Big Tech giants, saying they deserve to dominate their respective marketplaces.

“Amazon is gargantuan because consumers have voted, with their dollars every day, that the services provided by Amazon are better than the other alternatives that they have in the marketplace,” Rep. Tom McClintock of California said. “The moment they decide otherwise, Amazon will shrink and competitors will begin to emerge to fill those gaps. No business can survive by displeasing consumers.”

ARVADA, CO – JUNE 12: Protest organizer Floyd Nordstrom of Arvada, hold a sign up at the intersection of W. 64th Avenue and Indiana St. in Arvada opposing Amazon’s proposed distribution center in the area on Saturday, June 12, 2021. (Photo by Eric Lutzens/The Denver Post)

“When you have products and services,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, also of California, “that are becoming less expensive, more pervasive, without government intervention, the market at least is working. We often talk about competition as though competition is inherently good. The consumer getting a better product and a better service and a better deal is the reason we promote competition.”

Buck’s Republican colleagues in Colorado, Reps. Lauren Boebert and Doug Lamborn, did not respond to requests for comment asking whether they support his bills. They are not members of the Judiciary Committee, so they have not voted on the bills yet.

The legislation will undergo changes over the summer before going to the full House for a vote, which Buck anticipates will occur in September. From there, the bills that have not yet been passed by the Senate will be considered in the upper chamber. Buck and Davis are optimistic.

“The era of antitrust amnesty is over,” Davis said, “and Congressman Ken Buck is the driving force.”