Fair Play: Antitrust in the Heartland


FAIR PLAY

Antitrust deciphered.

Iowa Flag

A Democratic House candidate in Iowa thinks antitrust reform will resonate with voters.

Austin Frerick, the first in his family to finish college, returned to his home state from several economics jobs in Washington to run for office. He says wages are stagnating and prices have gone up because monopolies have been allowed to thrive. This is the same message Democratic stalwarts like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and some consumer groups are touting.

His challenge is talking about a complicated policy issue in terms that resonate with voters. On his website, he cites baby food, eyeglasses, pet food, and cable television as areas where corporate consolidation has caused prices to rise.

Frerick wants more active antitrust enforcement from the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission. He also wants changes to antitrust laws that would enable enforcers to go after monopolies and dominant companies in a broader way.

This campaign will be a field test of Democrats’ decision to focus on competition policy. Last year, Democratic leaders identified corporate power as a core political target when they unveiled an agenda that targeted blockbuster corporate mergers. Their plan called for new merger standards that require regulators to review how the deals impact wages and jobs.

As 2018 midterm elections draw closer, more Democratic candidates could embrace this message as part of their campaigns. We don’t know yet how Republicans will respond.

Frerick knows his audience. He’s targeted agriculture consolidation as his main issue, zeroing in on the harms of Bayer AG’s $66 billion takeover of Monsanto Co. that is currently being reviewed by the Justice Department. His campaign recently rolled out a video featuring a local farmer who says he’s concerned about the future of agriculture as farmers are forced to pay more for seeds from big agriculture companies.

Frerick told Bloomberg Law that these concerns about how consolidation impacts voters’ bottom line “validates the anger that fueled [President Donald Trump’s] rise.”

“I’m going to shift that conversation. Let’s blame these corporations,” he said. “We’ve really made inroads with the rural community, especially farmers, with this message.”

It’s still early in the campaign season. Frerick is in a primary against six other Democratic candidates for the chance to unseat incumbent Rep. David Young, a Republican. That means he’ll have to make himself stand out among other Democrats, who probably aren’t that different from him, before he gets the chance to challenge a Republican opponent about corporate consolidation.

He thinks he’s found the sweet spot to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. “I believe this is the issue of our time and we’re living in a second Gilded Age,” he said.

What’s Happening

The Heritage Foundation on Tuesday will host a conference discussing Trump’s antitrust policy after one year.

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Thursday is scheduled to hold a hearing on reforms to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Quote of the Week

“All eyes in the antitrust arena are going to be poised on the upcoming trial in the AT&T and Time Warner matter and how that ultimately plays out,” said former FTC Chairman Edith Ramirez.

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