GOP riven by infighting over Big Tech crackdown

Republicans want to go after Big Tech. But they’re now openly clashing with each other over a bipartisan effort to do just that.

The House Judiciary Committee will consider a package of sweeping bills on Wednesday to crack down on the country’s largest tech companies, a proposal that’s won support from members of both parties after years of complaints from Congress about industry abuses.

But these efforts have also exposed deep divisions in the GOP over how best to rein in Silicon Valley’s power, with House Republicans sparring over the legislative push. Some GOP lawmakers have blamed leadership-aligned lobbyists for working behind the scenes to tank the measures, while others in the conference claim their colleagues went behind leaders’ backs to hash out a deal with Democrats.

The infighting, which has spilled out into public view in the run-up to the consequential committee vote, underscores that the politics of antitrust don’t cut neatly across ideological lines, despite widespread agreement over the need to curb the power of tech giants. And the schism among conservatives has created some particularly strange partnerships in the halls of Congress.

Look no further than progressive Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) linking arms on antitrust with GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Ken Buck of Colorado, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, or leading liberal Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) co-sponsoring a bill with stalwart Trump backer Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas). Such unlikely alliances also pit those very same Republicans against two powerful Trump allies: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) questions U.S. Attorney General William Barr during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. In his first congressional testimony in more than a year, Barr faced questions from the committee about his deployment of federal law enforcement agents to Portland, Oregon, and other cities in response to Black Lives Matter protests; his role in using federal agents to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House last month before a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump in front of a church; his intervention in court cases involving Trump's allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn; and other issues. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“I have a ton of respect for Jim Jordan. He literally was the person I looked up to and wanted to run for Congress to be like,” Buck said in an interview. “And so, it’s disappointing in some ways that we don’t share the same views about this, but it’s not surprising.”

“I think this is just a family disagreement,” he added.

A handful of Republicans on the Judiciary panel could join Democrats in support of the antitrust bills even as Jordan rails against the measures, creating an unusual head-butting moment between a ranking member and the rank-and-file. Jordan’s team has been asking Republican offices for a heads-up if members plan to vote for the bills, according to a GOP source, but feels confident most of the Republican committee members will be on his side.

And Jordan has repeatedly labeled the antitrust effort as a group of “Democrat bills,” even though the package was drafted in part by one of his Judiciary subcommittee leaders — underscoring lingering intraparty tensions on the panel. That dynamic could snarl the antitrust package's path in the Senate.

The five antitrust bills, which would have far-reaching implications for the economy, are aimed at prohibiting Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google from exploiting their dominant position in the digital marketplace to elbow out competitors. Each of the bills takes on a separate part of the tech companies’ business models, making it easier for the government to penalize the Silicon Valley giants.

Some of the provisions might also affect Microsoft, a tech giant that has typically escaped scrutiny in Washington's most recent antitrust wars.

Buck is a co-sponsor of all of the bills, and several have support from GOP lawmakers including Reps. Burgess Owens (Utah), Madison Cawthorn (N.C.) and Gooden. Republican interest in the issue has heightened amid GOP accusations that social media platforms are censoring conservative voices.

Yet Republican critics of the antitrust bills say they do little to address their chief concern of conservative bias and may only exacerbate what they view as a problem. Some Republicans also feel like they’ve been misled about what the bills would actually do.

The bills' support from leading liberal Democrats has made them especially toxic in some corners of the Republican conference. Jordan has been publicly pushing against the bills, while McCarthy has said he’s planning to unveil his own tech reform agenda.

“We’ve got a beef with all Big Tech in the sense of the censorship they have of conservatives now," Jordan told Fox Business on Tuesday. Jordan added, however, that the antitrust bills coming to a vote are sponsored by "four impeachment managers" — questioning top Democrats' ability to write legislation that conservatives can favor.

Further complicating the debate is the tech industry's status as one of the biggest political spenders in Washington. While lobbying is commonplace on Capitol Hill, GOP proponents of the antitrust proposal have still blamed “the D.C. swamp” for tainting Republicans’ views on it. They say Big Tech's advocates have been aggressively seeking to influence their positions — including Jeff Miller, an independent lobbyist linked to McCarthy who represents several tech clients.

Miller has been seeking out lawmakers, catching them in person or pressing them over the phone, to lobby them to oppose the legislation, according to multiple sources. One Republican said Miller left a particularly aggressive voicemail on a lawmaker’s phone.

“I have heard a couple of instances of lobbyists leaving voice messages that were really, in my opinion, unprofessional. They were demonstrating tempers and language that is inappropriate,” Buck said, though he declined to single out lobbyists by name.

Gooden echoed that sentiment to The Wall Street Journal, telling the publication last week: “Industry lobbyists in Washington are going absolutely crazy. I have received text messages and calls, some friendly and some not, but all very much against these bills.”

Miller is a registered lobbyist for both Apple and Amazon, two companies that the antitrust overhaul would directly affect. Apple has paid Miller $600,000 since he registered to lobby for the company in 2019, a significant sum for a company with a smaller K Street footprint than its tech industry peers.

Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s cloud-computing arm, has paid Miller $440,000 since he registered on its behalf in 2019. Miller has also been paid $250,000 since registering as a lobbyist for California Business Roundtable in 2020. The Roundtable counts Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook as members.

Since 2018, when McCarthy was the second-highest ranking House Republican, Miller has given $82,500 to PACs affiliated with McCarthy and $46,100 to the GOP campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, for a total of $128,600, according to federal campaign finance records.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 13, 2021.

Meanwhile, McCarthy has received tens of thousands of dollars from Google, Amazon and Facebook, as well as the Koch Industries PAC, in recent years. The Koch companies' powerful network of advocacy organizations and trade groups is also lobbying against the bills, saying they would create too much government intervention in the economy.

Miller, however, is more than just a lobbyist: He also acts as a political adviser to McCarthy and has a long-standing personal relationship with the California Republican. Miller travels with the House GOP leader and has been known to appear at politically focused off-campus conference meetings.

One GOP lawmaker, who said Miller is clearly trying to influence policy, said rank-and-file members aren’t sure whether crossing the lobbyist means they are also crossing McCarthy.

“I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that," this lawmaker added, addressing Miller candidly on condition of anonymity. "I suspect that Jeff Miller’s influence is greater in Jeff Miller's mind than Kevin McCarthy’s mind."

McCarthy’s allies counter that he has consistently railed against Silicon Valley and conservative bias in recent years. They maintain that his opposition to the package of antitrust bills is based on legitimate policy qualms — not political concerns or connections to Miller.

But the McCarthy-Miller nexus is not the only GOP-Big Tech connection drawing conservative criticism. Mike Davis, who formerly worked as the chief counsel of nominations for then-Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is among the Republicans accusing Jordan of carrying water for Google. Jordan has received over $43,000 in donations from Google since 2005, according to campaign finance records, and Google’s parent company Alphabet was one of the top contributors to his campaign in 2020 with a $10,000 donation.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) listens as Katherine C. Tai, United States Trade Representative, testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.

Jordan earlier this week sent a letter criticizing Microsoft, one of Google’s major rivals. “In case anyone was wondering if Jim Jordan's talking points against the bipartisan antitrust legislation were being written by Google, this is a huge tell,” Yelp’s senior vice president of public policy, Luther Lowe, said about the letter.

Defenders of Jordan, who raised over $18 million last cycle, say the Google money is a drop in the bucket and doesn’t affect his business on Capitol Hill. Jordan’s camp is planning on putting forward his own package of ideas of how to tackle the power of Big Tech, according to a source familiar.

The internal friction in the GOP over the antitrust bills isn’t a one-sided affair. Critics of the antitrust legislation charge Buck with failing to keep Jordan in the loop about negotiations with Democrats, an allegation Buck dismisses.

There are divisions emerging among Democrats over the legislation as well. The New Democrat Coalition, including former Microsoft executive Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), has been asking the House Judiciary Committee to postpone the markup. And moderate Democrats on the panel, including Californians Zoe Lofgren and Lou Correa, have been raising concerns that the measures are too far-reaching. Lofgren, a powerful member of the committee, is concerned that the bills "go way, way farther than is necessary to get to the actual issues,” said a Democratic staffer.

Buck, who has fashioned himself into one of the most prominent antitrust crusaders in the GOP, said in an interview that he had to keep the bill text close to the vest to prevent leaks and maintain his working relationship with Democrats. Still, it’s unusual on the Hill to see the GOP head of a subcommittee work with Democrats over his own ranking member on such a broad effort.

In fact, the Coloradan plans to go further on antitrust, staying hopeful that he can win more Republican support as the issue gains more public attention.

“The big tech companies are afraid of these bills," Buck said. "They’re afraid of being held responsible and being held accountable."

Leah Nylen contributed to this report.

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