By Donald Shaw and David Moore, Sludge
Several bills to curb the market power of the world’s largest tech companies are being stalled to death by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after lobbyists for Amazon, Apple, and tech industry lobbying groups bundled millions in donations for the Democrats’ campaign arms.
Since last year, the Big Tech companies have been aggressively lobbying against the antitrust bills, which appear to have enough support to pass both the Senate and the House despite Schumer’s resistance. Lobbying disclosure forms reveal that Apple and Amazon are on pace to spend more on federal lobbying this year than ever, and Meta likely is as well. All stated that they have lobbied on the antitrust bills more than any other.
Meanwhile, a review by Sludge found that lobbyists for Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, and their trade groups have given more than $1.7 million in bundled donations to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Democratic Party organization in charge of supporting Democratic Senate campaigns and defending Schumer’s Senate majority.
The Senate has just days remaining to decide if it will take action on antitrust measures before its scheduled recess starts on Dec. 22.
One of the bills is the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), which would make it illegal for large online platforms to engage in a range of anticompetitive practices, including unfairly preferencing their own products and services; using non-public, platform-generated data to compete with their business users; and discriminating in their application of their terms of service between similarly situated businesses. The bill is written to cover the four largest online platform companies—Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Meta—and it empowers the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to jointly determine additional companies to which its restrictions apply. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the AICOA in January by a bipartisan vote of 16 to 6, and the bill’s chief Republican co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has told reporters that he informed Schumer that enough Republicans support the bill to get it past the 60-vote filibuster threshold if he brings it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Another tech industry-focused antitrust bill that Schumer is sitting on appears to have even stronger bipartisan support. The Open App Markets Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in February by a 20-2 vote, would prohibit companies that operate app stores like Apple and Google from requiring app creators to use their systems for in-app payments, among other things. With Schumer not calling up this bill, its co-sponsors Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are reportedly taking procedural steps to attempt to pass the bill by unanimous consent, an effort that will almost certainly fail because a single senator can defeat it by stating that they object.
Schumer has repeatedly said that he wants to call these bills up for votes, but time is quickly running out in the lame-duck session of Congress and Schumer has still not acted on them. If they are not advanced before the end of the session, they will likely be dead for the foreseeable future as the chief Republican backer of AICOA in the House, Rep. Ken Buck (Colo.), has said that House Republican leaders have sent very clear signals that they will not advance tech antitrust legislation once they take control of the chamber.
In a letter to Schumer last week, antitrust advocates urged the Majority Leader to call up the bills before the session ends, writing that “this historic opportunity to reinvigorate competition risks being rendered a historical footnote” if he does not, according to The Hill. The groups also urge Schumer in the letter to hold votes on three antitrust bills that the House passed in September by a 242-184 vote. Last week, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) attempted to call up one of those bills, the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, for passage in the Senate by unanimous consent, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected.
Bundles of Cash From Lobbyists
Federal Election Commission filings reviewed by Sludge show the DSCC has received bundles of campaign checks from Google lobbyist Michael D. Smith, Amazon lobbyist Brian Griffin, the PAC of Amazon lobbying firm Akin Gump, co-founder of Apple lobbying firm Invariant Heather Podesta, and co-founder of Amazon lobbying Subject Matter James A. Ryan. In addition, the PAC of U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck was reported by the DSCC as one of its bundlers. Meta, Amazon, and Alphabet are dues-paying members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as of their most recent voluntary disclosures of trade association affiliations.
Some of the bundled donations were delivered in the third quarter of this year as the bills’ sponsors called on Schumer to bring them up for a vote, including donations from Google lobbyist Smith, a member of the DSCC’s “Majority Trust Legacy Circle,” a special category of V.I.P. donors.
Since the start of last year, lobbyists for Big Tech companies or tech industry trade groups have bundled nearly $2.7 million for the DSCC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
These bundles are composed of campaign donations of up to the legal limits of $10,000 for individuals and $5,000 for PACs and are facilitated by the lobbyists or lobbying firms, likely through fundraising events that they have hosted. The bundled donations were either forwarded to the DSCC by the lobbyists and lobbying firms, either electronically or physically, or were simply credited to the lobbyists or firms by the DSCC. According to the FEC, crediting can mean that the lobbyist bundlers were given special access to the organization in exchange for their fundraising, or that the lobbyist fundraisers were given special titles or were given some sort of memento in exchange for raising certain amounts.
Internet platform companies financially supporting the Democrats is nothing new—the internet industry has donated far more to Democrats than Republicans each cycle going back decades. This year, however, some of the companies targeted by AICOA are spending more than ever on lobbying, possibly helping them cash in on the good will they have built up over the years.
Apple spent $6.5 million on federal lobbying in the first three quarters of the year. Its previous per-year lobbying high was in 2019 when it spent a total of $7.4 million. Amazon spent more than $16 million in the first three quarters of 2022. Its previous lobbying high was in 2022 when it spent $19.3 million. All four of the tech companies targeted by AICOA disclosed lobbying on AICOA in the first three quarters of the year more than on any other bill in Congress.
Earlier this year, corporate lobbying groups the Consumer Technology Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association spent nearly $25 million on broadcast, cable, and Facebook ads opposing the antitrust legislation, according to figures from AdImpact.