Biden-Harris Administration Announces New Initiatives to Lower Food, Rental Housing, and Other Costs and Updated Guidance Regarding Enforcement of Antitrust Laws in the Modern Economy
Promoting competition to lower costs and support small businesses and entrepreneurs is a central part of Bidenomics. When President Biden took office, four decades of misguided economic philosophy had led to a pull back from robust government action to promote competition, and concentration had increased in more than 75% of U.S industries. One estimate found that higher prices and lower wages caused by lack of competition was costing the median American household as much as $5,000 annually.
To turn the tide, almost exactly two years ago, President Biden signed a landmark Executive Order establishing the White House Competition Council and directing a “whole of government” approach to promoting competition. Today, at its fifth meeting since the Order, agencies represented on the White House Competition Council took three new actions to promote competition and lower costs:
- Lowering food prices and promoting competition in agriculture: Today, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched an historic enforcement partnership with over two dozen bipartisan State Attorneys General to crack down on price-gouging and other anticompetitive practices in food and agricultural markets. Under the Agricultural Competition Partnership, this bipartisan group will be able to harness all available legal enforcement tools—at both the state and federal level—to help lower food prices and promote competition in agricultural markets. USDA also launched the new Farmer Seed Liaison to help to give farmers a voice in the patent process. These initiatives build on actions USDA has already taken to help lower foods costs and help farmers get a fairer price for their goods, including distributing millions of dollars in grants to expand small and independent processing, and proposing rules to address anticompetitive behavior.
- Exposing rental housing junk fees to lower rental costs: Today, the Competition Council launched a new front in the Administration’s war on junk fees, taking action to address rental housing fees. This includes rental application fees that exceed the actual cost of running the background or credit check, and additional charges like so-called “convenience fees” to pay rent online. Application fees can be up to $100 or more per application and prospective renters often apply to more than one apartment, paying hundreds in application fees including for apartments that may no longer be available. Today, Zillow, Apartments.com, and AffordableHousing.com answered the President’s call to action by committing to launch new website features to show prospective renters all the fees up front—so they can comparison shop for the best deal and know what they are paying for upfront. In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a new white paper on rental housing junk fees, including innovative policies to address them.
- Providing clarity regarding enforcement of laws prohibiting anticompetitive mergers: Today, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) answered President Biden’s call to action in his Competition Executive Order by releasing their new proposed Merger Guidelines for public comment. The Guidelines seek to give the public, businesses, workers, and consumers clarity about how law enforcement agencies evaluate mergers under the antitrust laws on the books in the context of our modern economy. As the Council of Economic Advisers explains in a new issue brief, this revised guidance reflects an approach to antitrust enforcement that is informed by the best, most up-to-date economic evidence available. Robust enforcement can lower prices, raise wages, and promote innovation.
Today’s new announcements build on the dozens of actions agencies have already taken in just the two years since President Biden signed his Executive Order. Not only have agencies already delivered on a majority of the Order’s 72 initiatives, they have gone above and beyond to launch additional new initiatives, embracing the “all of government” approach and launching more than a dozen cross-cutting interagency initiatives. The Biden-Harris Administration’s actions to date include:
- President Biden signed into law the bipartisan Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which lowers costs for American retailers, farmers, and consumers. Ocean shipping prices are down more than 80% from their peak, which has contributed to the decline in inflationary pressures—with goods prices down sharply, from over 12% to 1.4%, over the past year and a half.
- Two major global shipping container suppliers abandoned a proposed merger following a DOJ investigation into whether the merger would result in higher prices, lower quality, and more fragile global supply chains.
- The national electric vehicle charging network will now have open and interoperable chargers thanks to a Department of Transportation (DOT) final rule. The rule also requires privacy protections.
- DOJ successfully sued to block a domestic alliance between two airlines that would have raised fares and limited choice.
- DOT called out airlines’ bad service and got results. Previously, none of the 10 largest U.S. airlines guaranteed meals or hotels when they caused a cancellation or significant delay and no airline guaranteed that parents can sit with their children for free. Now, thanks to DOT’s use of the bully pulpit, 9 of the 10 largest airlines guarantee hotels, 10 airlines to guarantee meals, and 3 airlines to guarantee fee-free family seating. Consumers can see what services airlines offer at FlightRights.Gov.
- DOT is pursuing an unprecedented expansion of airline passenger rights and protections. It has put out a suite of proposed rules that, if finalized as proposed, would: (1) require airlines to promptly refund airline tickets when they cancel or significantly change a flight; (2) require refunds for services not delivered (like broken Wi-Fi or delayed bags), and (3) require fees to be disclosed up-front for add-on services like checking a bag or changing or canceling a flight. DOT is also working on rules that would ban family seating junk fees and would require airlines to compensate flyers when a flight is cancelled or delayed due to the airline’s fault.
- The Surface Transportation Board (STB) has adopted a new rule to make it easier and faster for rail customers to challenge excessive railroad rates. The STB is also pursuing a rulemaking on reciprocal switching that, if finalized as proposed, would introduce more rail service options to shippers and a proposed a rule that, if finalized as proposed, would allow rail customers to more easily seek relief during service emergencies.
Food and Agriculture
- Farmers and ranchers can now anonymously report potential unfair and anticompetitive practices through FarmerFairness.gov, a new enforcement collaboration between DOJ and FTC that brings both agencies’ investigative resources and authorities to bear. This enforcement collaboration resulted in a successful settlement with major poultry processors that deceived farmers and suppressed wages.
- Thirty-one small, independent meat and poultry processors have received $171 million in USDA award funding to offer more processing capacity for farmers in 23 states, through the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program (MPPEP) and Meat and Poultry Intermediary Lending Program (MPILP). These awards are part of a broader $1 billion investment to expand independent meat and poultry processing capacity across the country as part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain.
- USDA stood up and dedicated $500 million for the Fertilizer Production Expansion Program, which supports fertilizer production that is independent, made-in-America, innovative, sustainable, and farmer-focused.
- To protect farmers and ranchers from harmful, anti-competitive practices, USDA proposed a Packers and Stockyards Act rule that, if finalized as proposed, would prohibit discrimination, retaliation, and deception in livestock, meat, and poultry markets. USDA is also working on additional Packers and Stockyards Act rules to address unfair practices in the poultry tournament system and to clarify that a market-wide showing of harm to competition is not required to establish a violation of the Act.
- To give American consumers more accurate information about the food they consume, USDA proposed a rule that, if finalized as proposed, would allow the voluntary “Product of USA” or “Made in the USA” claim to be applied only on meat, poultry, and egg products when they are derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States. Under current labeling rules, a product could be labeled “Product of USA” if it was only processed here—including when meat is raised overseas and then merely processed into cuts of meat domestically. That makes it hard or impossible for consumers to know where their food comes from and to choose to support American farmers and ranchers.
- Growers and plant breeders will have more transparency about the complex seed system through USDA’s launch of a Farmer Seed Liaison Initiative, in collaboration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This initiative follows a landmark report published by USDA on competition problems in seed markets.
- Treasury, in consultation with DOJ and FTC, released a report on competition in the markets for beer, wine, and spirits, celebrating the vibrancy and innovativeness of the U.S. alcohol industry while proposing a series of recommendations to level the playing field for small businesses. Treasury is working on a suite of rulemakings to implement recommendations in the report.
Technology and Internet Service
- Broadband providers will soon be required to display “Broadband Nutrition Labels” for consumers—simple labels that provide basic information about the internet service offered, including costs and fees, so people can compare options more easily—thanks to a rule finalized by Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
- Tenants of office buildings and apartments can now access more options, thanks to FCC cracking down on “sweetheart deals” between landlords and internet providers that lock tenants into just one provider.
- FCC has proposed rules that, if finalized as proposed, would require cable providers to display total, “all-in” prices clearly and prominently, so consumers know what they are getting and at what price.
- FTC released a new enforcement policy on the “Right to Repair” and secured major settlements making it easier and cheaper to repair grills, motorcycles, and generators. Since the President’s Order endorsed the “Right to Repair,” Microsoft and Apple have announced voluntary changes, and Minnesota, Colorado, and New York passed new laws.
- FTC stopped a $40 billion semiconductor megamerger that would have stifled innovation.
- FTC has proposed a rule that, if finalized as proposed, would make it as easy to cancel a subscription as it was to sign up.
- FTC launched the rulemaking process for new privacy rules to crack down on harmful surveillance, data collection, and data security practices that threaten Americans’ privacy and enable companies to profit off collecting vast troves of personal data from consumers.
- The Department of Commerce announced the Biden-Harris Internet for All initiative, a $45 billion investment in high-speed internet access, which, after funding infrastructure in areas without access, will provide funding for competitors in areas where existing access is low-quality.
- An estimated 30 million workers could benefit from a non-competes ban proposed by the FTC that, if finalized in its current form, could raise wages by nearly $300 billion annually. Non-compete agreements reduce workers’ mobility, thus suppressing wages and limiting opportunity.
- The Treasury Department issued a landmark report finding that a lack of competition in labor markets lowers wages by roughly 20%, compared to what they would be in a fully competitive market.
- The Department of Labor published an interim final rule in February establishing procedures and timeframes for handling whistleblower retaliation complaints under the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act (CAARA).
- The Department of Labor has also partnered with the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division to protect workers’ rights and support worker mobility and more competitive labor markets. Both the FTC and the DOJ have also agreed to share information with the National Labor Relations Board as part of efforts to protect workers from unfair labor practices.
- DOJ successfully sued to block Penguin Random House’s proposed $2.2 billion acquisition of Simon & Schuster—a victory for authors, readers, and the free exchange of ideas that also sets a landmark legal precedent that antitrust laws protect workers.
- President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which lowers the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is implementing key Medicare provisions of the Act, while also pursuing other initiatives such as continuing to advance competition from lower cost generic drugs and biosimilars.
- Hearing aids for mild-to-moderate hearing loss are now available in stores without a prescription, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalizing a rule allowing over-the-counter sales. This is saving the nearly 30 million Americans with hearing loss as much as $3,000 per pair. And now, 10 months since hearing aids became available, new companies are entering the market and offering new products and features in thousands of stores across all 50 states. Many retailers are expanding both their product offerings and the number of stores that sell over-the-counter hearing aids.
- Consumers have access to new data about ownership in health care as the Administration for the first time has made ownership data on hospitals, nursing homes, hospice providers, and home health agencies publicly available. HHS has also proposed new rules that would shed light on private equity ownership of nursing homes. HHS has also proposed new requirements for hospitals to publicly post their charges in a standardized way and to strengthen oversight of noncompliant hospitals.
- The Department of Commerce (DOC) and HHS announced a joint effort to produce a whole-of-government framework for making decisions about when to exercise “march-in” authority, including when price may be a consideration.
- Consumers can now compare apples-to-apples when choosing the health plan that will work best for them because HHS finalized a rule requiring insurers to offer standardized plans on the ACA Marketplace.
- The Administration is increasing scrutiny of prescription drug patents that unduly delay competition through a joint effort launched between HHS and USPTO.
- Doctors will automatically provide patients with a copy of their prescriptions immediately after an eye exam if an update to the Eyeglass Rule proposed by the FTC is finalized as proposed.
- The Biden-Harris Administration delivered more than $450 billion in emergency relief funding to over 6 million small businesses during the pandemic. During 2021 and 2022, Americans filed a record 10.5 million applications to start small business. This recovery and these record applications represent hope and optimism of entrepreneurs across the country and are bringing increased options and competition to industries across the economy.
- The Department of Defense rolled out its small business strategy that simplifies entry points for small businesses into the defense marketplace, aligns small business programs with mission priorities and increases engagement and support for small businesses in the industrial base.
- The Treasury Department has directed billions of dollars towards small businesses. Through the American Rescue Plan’s State Small Business Credit Initiative, Treasury is distributing nearly $10 billion to states, territories, and tribal governments to expand access to capital for small businesses. Through the Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP), Treasury has closed and funded more than $8.3 billion in investments to support the efforts of community financial institutions to provide loans, grants, and other assistance, including to small and minority-owned businesses.
- The Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) has launched the nearly $100 million Capital Readiness Program, which will provide funding to incubators and accelerators across the country to support minority and other underserved entrepreneurs who want to start or scale their businesses in high-growth industries such as health care, climate resilient technology, asset management, infrastructure, and more.
- The Small Business Administration has finalized rules that will allow it to extend additional 7a licenses to nonbank lenders and community development financial institutions (CDFIs), expanding options for lending to small businesses and promoting competition among lenders.
Banking, Insurance, and Consumer Finance
- DOJ successfully sued to block the merger of two larger insurance brokerages that would have left the market with just two dominant players and could have raised costs for millions of consumers and businesses.
- A rule proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) would lower typical credit card late fees from approximately $30 to $8, saving consumers up to $9 billion annually if finalized as proposed. Additionally, as a result of the CFPB’s actions to address bounced check and overdraft fees, consumers will save an estimated $5.5 billion a year going forward.
- The CFPB launched a rulemaking process to make it easier and cheaper for consumers to switch banks and access credit, by allowing customers to take their financial transaction data with them to a competitor.
- The CFPB is helping to spur technological advancement in financial services through its new office, the Office of Competition and Innovation, which will help to promote competition and identify stumbling blocks for new market entrants.
- The Securities and Exchange Commission has finalized a rule that will bring more competition, transparency, and efficiency to private investments funds—an $18 trillion marketplace.