Lina Khan, a Top Antitrust Thinker, in Talks to Join Democratic Staff in the House, Putting Silicon Valley on Alert

By Betsy Woodruff

A major new congressional hire could result in more federal pressure on companies like Facebook and Amazon, The Daily Beast has learned.

Lina Khan, who wrote a semi-viral Yale Law Journal article about Amazon, is in talks to join the staff of the congressional panel overseeing antitrust issues, according to people familiar with the plans. Rep. David Cicilline chairs the panel.

She comes from a school of antitrust thinkers who have called for breaking up Facebook.

Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, has made no secret of his interest in taking on major internet companies as the newly minted chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust. Now, Khan, who did not respond to requests for comment, could become an ally in that work. The Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department enforce antitrust laws by taking major corporations to court; changes on the Hill could mean increased pressure on them to do so.

“A lot of members don’t hire qualified staffers, especially on complicated issues like antitrust, which hinders their ability to get things done,” said a federal lobbyist who works on antitrust issues and spoke anonymously because of client concerns. “This is a person qualified for the job, who will supercharge Cicilline’s oversight work.”

“In hiring Lina, Cicilline will be more successful in pushing regulators to scrutinize the anti-competitive activity of companies like Facebook,” the lobbyist added.

Khan, an academic fellow at Columbia University, has drawn national attention for her work on antitrust law, including multiple New York Times op-eds.

“By virtue of providing increasingly critical services, tech giants wield immense leverage over the sellers and buyers that rely on their platforms,” she wrote in a March 2018 Times op-ed. “This power is ripe for abuse.”

Khan, an alum of the Open Markets Institute, comes from a community of antitrust academics and activists who push hard for toughening up antitrust enforcement to constrain the power of ballooning tech and telecom companies. In a 2017 Times op-ed, for instance, she argued against Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods.

“Antitrust laws, which were passed by Congress to prevent these kinds of concentrations of private power, have been largely reduced to a technical tool to keep prices low,” she wrote in the piece.

Her potential move to the Hill should cause some anxiety in Silicon Valley, per a lobbyist who represents clients before the subcommittee—in particular, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

“I do not think that they would be happy about this at all,” the lobbyist said. “This is a dramatic hire for Cicilline. He’s been moving in the direction of being very aggressive against big tech, and this hire basically cements that.”

The antitrust subcommittee would play a key role in any legislation overhauling antitrust law. But any major bipartisan legislation passing in the two years before a presidential election is a long shot.

So the committee’s most interesting work is likely to be its oversight. As the subcommittee’s chairman, Cicilline will oversee the Justice Department’s powerful Antitrust Division, as well as the FTC. The subcommittee will bring in the government’s top regulators responsible for blocking anti-competitive behavior, and will have the power to summon the heads of country’s most powerful corporations to testify. Rigorous oversight could ratchet up the pressure on the DOJ and FTC to rigorously enforce antitrust law.

“For most people, their everyday interaction with power is not with their representative in Congress, but with their boss,” Khan told The Atlantic last year. “And if in your day-to-day life you’re treated like a serf in your economic relationships, what does that mean for your civic capabilities—for your experience of democracy?”