President Joe Biden signed on Friday an executive order that the White House bills as an effort to target anticompetitive practices in tech, health care and other parts of the economy while boosting workers’ wages and consumer protections.
The sweeping order includes 72 actions and recommendations that the White House says “will lower prices for families, increase wages for workers, and promote innovation and even faster economic growth.”
On Friday, Biden called himself a "proud capitalist" but said: "Let me be clear: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation."
The president noted examples like prescription drugs, hearing aids and other products that can be costly for consumers due to a lack of competition in the market.
Biden called on the federal agencies mentioned in the executive order to help restore competition. He was joined for the signing by Cabinet members including Attorney General Merrick Garland, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, plus Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The president also mentioned China as a key competitor with the United States and a reason to boost U.S. innovation.
"In the competition against China and other nations of the 21st century, let's show that American democracy and the American people can truly outcompete anyone," Biden said.
The order Biden signed includes calls for banning or limiting noncompete agreements to help boost wages, allowing rule changes that would pave the way for hearing aids to be sold over the counter at drugstores and banning excessive early-termination fees by internet companies. It also calls on the Transportation Department to consider issuing rules requiring airlines to refund fees when baggage is delayed or in-flight services are not provided as advertised.
“In total, higher prices and lower wages caused by lack of competition are now estimated to cost the median American household $5,000 per year,” the White House said in a fact sheet outlining the order. “Inadequate competition holds back economic growth and innovation.”
The White House said Biden’s order follows in the tradition of past presidents who took action to slow growing corporate power. Teddy Roosevelt’s administration broke up powerful trusts that had a grip on huge swaths of the economy, including Standard Oil and J.P. Morgan’s railroads. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration stepped up antitrust enforcement in the 1930s.
Biden’s order includes a flurry of consumer-pointed initiatives that could potentially lead to new federal regulations, but it also includes plenty of aspirational language that simply “encourages” agencies to take action meant to bolster worker and consumer protections.
The order seeks to address noncompete clauses — an issue affecting some 36 million to 60 million Americans, according to the White House — by encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to ban or limit such agreements, ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions and strengthen antitrust guidance to prevent employers from collaborating to suppress wages or reduce benefits by sharing wage and benefit information with one another.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week that the provision would help workers in construction, hotel services and other blue-collar industries whose ability to seek better wages is often stymied by noncompete clauses.
The order also seeks to take aim at tech giants Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon by calling for greater scrutiny of mergers, “especially by dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by ‘free’ products, and the effect on user privacy.”
It notes that over the past two decades the U.S. has lost 70% of the banks it once had, with around 10,000 bank closures. Communities of color and rural areas have been disproportionately affected.
To begin addressing the trend, the order encourages the Justice Department, as well as the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, to update guidelines to provide greater scrutiny of mergers. It also encourages the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to issue rules allowing customers to download their banking data and take it with them.
The order includes several provisions that could affect the agricultural industry. It calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider issuing new rules defining when meat can use “Product of USA” labels. It also encourages the FTC to limit farm equipment manufacturers’ ability to restrict the use of independent repair shops or DIY repairs, such as when tractor companies block farmers from repairing their own tractors.