This week: AGs and FTC call Facebook a monopoly, Congress considers earmarks again, and Biden shares more cabinet picks.
Welcome to The Wrap! Each week, we’ll walk through some of the big news and policy headlines from the last seven days to explain what it all means.
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Quick note: I’m not entirely sure what The Wrap will look like in 2021—or if it’ll even be a thing. As much as I enjoy putting these together, they do consume more time than I’d like. So just a heads up, the format and length of these will be changing over the next few weeks. Expect more of a focus on the public policy headlines, fewer headlines in general, and less about the politics of it all. (Though there will certainly be instances in which the politics is integral to the policy story itself.)
Now to the thing.
As of Friday morning, we’ve seen 15.8 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Over 294,000 people have reportedly died.
Here are three big policy stories from last week:
1. Facebook faces the music.
Forty-eight state attorneys general and, separately, the Federal Trade Commission filed lawsuits against Facebook alleging anti-competitive actions. This follows the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Google and the past several months of broader governmental attention to Big Tech and its endemic monopolistic tendencies.
The focus of these lawsuits is a simple one to understand: By “gobbling up competitive threats,” as NPR put it, Facebook has dominated social media and effectively shut out much of its competition (save, of course, for other big platforms like Twitter and TikTok). This is a straightforward example of monopolistic practices—buying competition to eliminate competition.
The AGs’ suit focuses on Facebook’s “buy or bury” strategy that ensured the platform’s dominance. Both suits specifically call out Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp as examples. These deals, the lawsuits say, break market competition laws. Market and economics scholar Matt Stoller put it this way:
The enforcers proved their case with internal emails showing that the company [Facebook] deliberately and routinely engaged in acquisitions to eliminate competition, and then eroded user privacy when users had nowhere else to go. … Facebook was locking in its users.
One simple solution is for Facebook to sell these apps. However, some experts think there are other solutions, like having Facebook allow users to post simultaneously here and on other platforms, or otherwise make it easier for Facebook to connect to competing platforms. (Called “interoperability.”)
Facebook has responded by calling the basis of these suits “revisionist history.”
Related: NPR has four key takeaways from the filed lawsuits, which cover exactly how Facebook got so big. It includes this hefty quote:
“Will he go into destroy mode if I say no?” Instagram founder Kevin Systrom asked an investor while weighing Zuckerberg’s $1 billion offer. “Bottom line I don’t think we’ll ever escape the wrath of Mark … it just depends how long we avoid it.”
Related: At the same time, internal emails shared the FTC might not be able to afford further pursuing this case and others. Politico explains the cash crunch here.
2. Congress considers bringing back earmarks.
In an effort to boost congressional productivity, House Democrats are considering bringing back earmarks.
As the Brookings Institute explains, earmarks are “individual provisions inserted into legislation (most often) spending bills to direct benefits for specific projects in specific places.” For example, a bill needs more yes votes; those on the fence could add earmarks to the bill to get something in return, like funding for a pet project in their district.
Earmarks were frequently used to prevent gridlock in Congress. They went out of style because they were also a big part of some mid-2000s spending scandals in Washington. Democrats sought to reform these measures soon after with more transparent rules, but the following GOP majority banned them in 2011.
Personally, I think there’s a lot of merit to this proposal. The gridlock has been worse these past several years than any other point in recent memory; bipartisanship is hard to come by and the outlook isn’t great for the next Congress. With a razor-thin majority in the House (and Senate, regardless of the Georgia runoff election results), Ds and Rs will almost certainly need to improve cross-aisle relations. Earmarks could grease the wheel.
Additionally, I agree with soon-to-be House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) point that this would help representation of the interests of sub-constituencies (per Brookings). For many Americans, Washington is this far-away place where policy should be made that benefits them, yet instead they see almost know real progress and what little there is doesn’t directly impact them. Earmarks could be a tool in repairing this relationship.
To be fair, the concerns regarding earmarks is real—government corruption needs to be taken seriously. Still, there are ways to improve transparency and brings these back.
3. Biden shares more picks for his cabinet.
President-elect Joe Biden announced some additional nominations for his administration. The most notable this week is his pick for Secretary of Defense: retired General Llyod Austin. This gained a lot of attention for two big reasons:
- Austin has not been retired for the congressionally mandated seven years needed for a member of the armed forces to serve in this position. That provision is meant to ensure civilian control of the military and it’s only been waived twice.
- Austin, if confirmed, would be the first person of color to run the Pentagon.
It’s not certain whether the waiver Austin needs to serve as SecDef would be passed. Vox has more here on this and Austin’s background.
Biden also named Tom Vilsack to be his Secretary of Agriculture and Representative Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Biden’s decision on Vilsack, formerly President Obama’s Ag Secretary, has already faced criticism from progressives and low-income advocacy groups, who want a fresh direction for this department that oversees the USDA and programs like SNAP. Vilsack is more or less the “status quo pick.”
Fudge, who has been a prominent champion for SNAP and food security in general, lobbied hard for the job Vilsack will take. As the head of HUD, she’ll have much of her work cut out for her, as Biden heavily focused on housing as a candidate. In addition to the boiler plate stuff, housing will be integral to the admin’s push for more sustainable infrastructure and combatting the economic effects of the pandemic.
Here are the other picks announced this week:
- Health and Human Services Secretary: Xavier Becerra. Former Congressman and currently California’s Attorney General, he’s a strong advocate for the Affordable Care Act and supporter for Medicare for All.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director: Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Currently chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, Walensky has frontline experience in dealing with COVID-19.
- Surgeon General: Dr. Vivek Murthy. He was Obama’s Surgeon General.
- Secretary of of Veterans Affairs: Denis McDonough. He was Obama’s chief of staff from 2013 until 2017, although his not being a veteran is a bit of a surprise.
- U.S. Trade Representative: Katherine Tai. She is currently the senior trade lawyer for the House Ways and Means Committee and has been vocal in supporting tougher U.S. relations with China.
- White House Domestic Policy Council Director: Susan Rice. She’s a former UN ambassador and national security ambassador. Rice was also in the running for Biden’s running mate during the campaign, and was reportedly considered for Secretary of State, too.
2020 election fallout:
The election itself is over, but that hasn’t stopped President Trump and his allies from trying to undo its results. Here are the biggest recent developments:
- Trump has contacted a few of the battleground states he lost to see if their governments could overturn the results or decertify them.
- A group of 17 state attorneys general filed a brief to the Supreme Court that basically repeated Trump’s evidence-less claim of mass voter fraud. This has support from several dozen Republicans in Congress. Meanwhile, a separate (and bipartisan) group AGs in other states are asking SCOTUS not to humor this.
- A group of Republicans in Congress asked U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr to appoint a special counsel to investigate “legitimate questions of voter fraud [that] remain unanswered.” This follows Barr’s DOJ finding no evidence of voter fraud.
SCOTUSblog and Ohio State University have a tracker of all the election-related litigation here.
The latest from Congress:
The Senate passed a stopgap measure for the federal budget. This buys Congress an extra week to hash out something longer term and also pivot to stimulus negotiations. Here are some reasons (a mix of OK and not OK) for the hold up, from Roll Call:
- Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.) wanted to include a “no budget, no pay” provision that would deny lawmakers their salaries if a budget isn’t passed on time.
- Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wanted to strip troop removal language from the separate defense bill.
- Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wanted to discuss including a round of stimulus checks.
Meanwhile, stimulus negotiations are (you guessed it) stalled once again but there have been some important developments:
- Aid for state and local governments totaling $160 billion is on the table. This is far below what is needed, as we covered in the summer, but at least it’s being seriously discussed. However, this is an unpopular measure on the Republican side. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to pair this with GOP favorite liability insurance for companies. This is proving to be the biggest sticking point.
- There’s also a “stimulus checks or unemployment insurance boost” debate. Senators Sanders and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have been the most vocal champions for including stimulus checks (which weren’t included in the latest version of the package). This could be something passed outside of the larger stimulus bill.
There’s not much telling that a stimulus package will actually be passed before the new year, and even less telling as to how big it will be. The $908 billion bipartisan proposal remains the fulcrum for talks, but McConnell has poured a lot of cold water on this version.
In other news: The House and Senate passed the defense spending bill. This includes the provision to rename bases named after Confederate leaders. Both chambers did so with a veto-proof majority, an important detail as President Trump has threatened not to approve the bill.
- The U.S. will be getting 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer, but it turns out the Trump admin passed on buying more for later in 2021. While we’ll also be receiving vaccines from Moderna as well, this could bite us in the butt: Vaccine rollout is already expected to be slow and we could face a shortage next year.
- Once again, the State Department’s inspector general will be leaving office. This is the third time this year that the department’s internal watch dog will be replaced.
- A new report from The New Yorker, with testimony from Senate aides, suggests 87-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D) mental faculties are failing.
- Come January, U.S. renters could owe a collective $70 billion in late rent payments, fees, and unpaid utility bills. Much of this is owed by low-income households.
- Brandon Bernard was executed at a federal correction facility in Indiana. He’s the ninth person to be executed this year, after 17 years of a federal moratorium on capital punishment. Bernard was tried as an 18-year-old for his involvement in a double homicide. Recently, previously undisclosed evidence that might have played a significant factor in Bernard’s case was uncovered. Despite this, the Supreme Court denied a request to delay his execution.
- Argentina’s congress passed a one-time “millionaire’s tax” this week to help pay for the country’s COVID response.
- Climate-ish news here. The Trump admin received the latest research that further asserted the extreme harm of super small industrially produced particle in the air (called PM 2.5) plus its link to COVID-19 deaths. Instead of strengthening restrictions on industrial soot emissions that include PM 2.5, the admin opted not to do anything.
- New York State’s pension fund will drop some of its fossil fuel stocks over the next five years. This could be a big deal. Here’s how The New York Times put it: “With $226 billion in assets, New York’s fund wields clout with other retirement funds and its decision to divest from fossil fuels could accelerate a broader shift in global markets away from oil and gas companies, energy experts and climate activists said.”
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee OK’d a bill that would spend $1 billion of federal money to bolster existing nuclear power plants. The bill has bipartisan backing, though some Democrats are skeptical of nuclear power in general. Still, not all climate-minded Dems and organizations are against this—likely because it’s becoming abundantly clear we will need to rely more on nuclear power in the intermediate term if we want to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The Atlantic’s The Weekly Planet newsletter has a good discussion on the divide over nuclear power in the climate activist community here.
- The European Union’s members agreed to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 55% (compared to 1990 levels) within this decade.
What to expect next week:
- Congress: More budget talks (expect something like a three-month continuing resolution) and stimulus negotiations.
- Per The Guardian, we might be entering a global mad dash for lithium. With the pivot to electric vehicles ramping up, we’re going to need a lot of this stuff, the metal used in many EV batteries. Here’s the catch: Clamoring to find lithium may just cause its own environmental harm.
- A new report from Date for Progress and the Justice Collaborative Institute makes the case for the Biden administration’s HUD to adopt a “social housing” model. This would involve building more sustainable and green housing with an added focus on a shift away from car-focused planning. One specific proposal: building 12 million units of public housing over the next ten years. CityLab has more here.
That’s a wrap. Check out 101PC’s latest piece on how states can improve lobbying regulations.
Also, I’ll be revisiting some of my most viewed and favorite posts from this year. If you have one that piqued your interest, let me know here!