President Biden unveiled a new plan on Friday taking aim at powerful industries where a handful of players have so much market clout that they can drive up prices, depress wages and make it hard for small companies to break in.
"We know we've got a problem, a major problem. We've also got an incredible opportunity," Biden said in remarks before signing the order.
"The executive order I'm soon going to be signing commits the federal government to full and aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws. No more tolerance for abusive actions by monopolies."
His executive order on competition contains directives for a dozen government agencies to take 72 measures — some big, some small — to shake up key markets for consumers, workers, farmers and small businesses, White House officials told NPR. They spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of Biden's announcement.
The White House is just getting started on what it hopes will be a new era of enforcement of antitrust laws in which mergers are challenged more often and unfair practices are cracked down on, the officials said.
News about some of the measures trickled out earlier this week, including a plan to curb the use of noncompete agreements and pare back unnecessary licensing requirements for jobs.
The executive order also includes plans to allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter at pharmacies and to make it easier for people to fix their phones or other equipment themselves.
In his Friday remarks, Biden lamented the high cost of hearing aids and criticized companies that he said had taken an unfair share of the market through deceitful and unfair practices.
"If your companies want to win your business, they have to go out and up their game," he said. "Fair competition is why capitalism has been the world's greatest force of prosperity and growth."
A continuation of efforts under Obama
Some of the rules pick up where competition advocates in the Obama administration left off.
"We started this effort in our last year, and it took awhile to even figure out what we wanted to do, and then it takes a long time to write a rule or to make sure you're enforcing a rule," said Jason Furman, who led the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama White House.
"We got a good start, but it was only a start," said Furman, now a professor of economic policy at Harvard. "What's really important here is that President Biden is doing this in his first year."
Big Tech will face more scrutiny
Some of the most sweeping measures target the tech sector. The White House wants Obama-era net neutrality rules to be restored — measures that prevent internet providers from throttling their service.
Other measures would make it easier to compare prices for internet services, ban steep early termination bills, and stop landlords from having exclusive arrangements with providers.
The White House is expected to signal that it will scrutinize mergers in the tech sector, particularly when established players buy up new competitors and deals that affect the privacy of consumers and their data.
Details and enforcement of many of these directives would fall to the Federal Trade Commission, now led by Lina Khan, a high-profile critic of big technology companies.
But the White House will also urge the FTC to focus on competition in the health care sector, including a ban on deals where pharmaceutical drugmakers pay to delay the release of generic drugs.
Small and medium measures can add up
Biden also will create a new competition council at the White House to track progress on the 72 ideas and come up with new measures to add to the list.
That systematic approach should pay dividends, Furman said. He explained that a series of small and medium measures can add up to big changes.
For example, he said, hearing aids — an expensive market dominated by a few players — is one area ripe for competition. The Obama administration tried to make it possible to buy more types of hearing aids at pharmacies, just like reading glasses, rather than treating them like expensive medical devices.
"That won't transform our economy," Furman said, "but for a lot of people, that'll save them thousands of dollars. And that's the type of action you want to do over and over again."
NPR Politics reporter Alana Wise contributed to this report.
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden will issue an executive order today to promote competition across a bunch of industries, including farming, airlines, prescription drugs and Internet service providers. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid got an early look at the executive order and is with us now. Good morning, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So this order is very consumer and worker-oriented.
KHALID: That's right. The White House believes that it'll lead to lower prices for consumers, better wages for employees and, eventually, more durable, long-term economic growth. The goal is to tilt markets more in favor of workers and consumers over big, powerful companies. And in total, it includes some 20 - 72 - I'm sorry - different initiatives. It really is an indication of how this White House is thinking about economic policy and its hopes for kicking off a new era of enforcement of antitrust laws.
KING: The aims are impressive. Among those 72 measures, what stood out to you?
KHALID: Well, the order directs the Federal Trade Commission to limit non-competes. Those prevent a lot of workers, you know, from quitting one job to go to a better one. I spoke with Jason Furman. He was a chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. And he said some of these ideas might seem small. But collectively, they could really transform the economy. And the example he gave me was this part of the order that would enable more hearing aids to be sold at pharmacies instead of having to go through a doctor.
JASON FURMAN: There's no reason that hearing aids shouldn't be more like, you know, over-the-counter reading glasses. It's a lot of people who just can't believe how much they have to spend for these devices. They don't cost that much to make.
KHALID: And the order that the president is going to be signing today envisions a proposal for this in the next few months. There's also a nugget in the order about airline fees and issuing rules to require refunds if you say, you know, pay for a check bag and it ends up delayed.
KING: That would be nice. You mentioned we're getting some hints about how this administration thinks about antitrust. I would imagine a big part of this, then, is aimed at the tech sector.
KHALID: Exactly, quite a bit. I mean, I would say some of the more sweeping changes really do target the tech sector. You know, the White House wants Obama-era net neutrality rules to be restored. It's also indicating that it'll more closely scrutinize mergers in the tech sector, particularly when established players buy up new competitors and when those deals might affect consumer data and consumer privacy. Many of the directives would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which is now led by Lina Khan. She's a high-profile critic of big tech companies.
KING: Thinking back to the last Democratic presidential administration, didn't the Obama White House try to get some of this done?
KHALID: You know, the White House says there was a nascent effort toward the end of the Obama administration to deal with some of these issues. But it takes a while to write rules. And frankly, some of those ideas didn't get off the ground. Some of them were also rolled back by the Trump administration. But by doing this in the first year of the Biden White House, you know, the president is signaling that it's a priority. And he's also creating time for agencies to write these rules. The White House is also launching a White House Competition Council to monitor progress on all these initiatives. I will say, though, Noel, really, the efficacy of all of this is going to come down to how the rules are written, how they're actually enforced and whether or not they're able to withstand legal challenges.
KING: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.
KHALID: My pleasure.
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