Interview'Pernicious income inequality' unraveling democracy

To fix a broken system, a Jewish Democrat wants to bust corporate monopolies

In 2017, David Cicilline knew nothing about competition policy. Now, he’s leading the House antitrust subcommittee and opening major investigations into Big Tech

US Rep. David Cicilline leaves the House Democratic Caucus leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
US Rep. David Cicilline leaves the House Democratic Caucus leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Before he got to Congress, David Cicilline never gave much thought to monopolies. A former civil rights attorney, he was a natural fit for the House Judiciary Committee. But when there was an opening to be the Democratic leader on the antitrust subcommittee in 2017, he was reluctant to take the job.

Until a colleague gave him some advice.

As Cicilline, a representative from Rhode Island, recently explained to The Times of Israel, New York Representative Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel who offered him the position, told him that “sometimes opportunities present themselves in Congress where you just need to kind of expand your mind and learn something completely new.”

Today, the Democrats have a majority in the House, Cicilline is the committee’s chairman, and corporate consolidation has gone from being a marginal concern in American politics to a front-and-center issue heading into the 2020 campaign.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed to break up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has called for breaking up agribusiness monopolies; and other candidates including Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have vowed to enact stricter antitrust enforcement if they are elected.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote speech at F8, Facebook’s developer conference, in San Jose, California, May 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

At a time when the economy is more highly concentrated than at any point since the late 19th Century — four airlines now control most US air travel, three national chains own 99 percent of American drug stores, Google and Facebook control 61% of the online ad market — Cicilline has become the Democrats’ top trustbuster on Capitol Hill.

And he’s been busy. On June 3, Cicilline launched a major investigation into whether the country’s biggest tech companies violated US antitrust laws through engaging in anti-competitive behavior, including by stifling or acquiring their rivals, or giving an unfair advantage to their own products on their own platforms.

Cicilline, the son of a Jewish mother and Italian Catholic father, dreamed of entering politics since he was 15, when he started attending local town council meetings out of pure curiosity.

After graduating from Georgetown Law School, he worked as a public defender in Washington, DC, and represented disadvantaged kids that he felt were trapped in a cycle of poverty and broken criminal justice system.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., joined at right by Rep.Ted Lieu, D-Calif., makes a point during a House Judiciary Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The experience taught Cicilline that the problem was systemic, and the only way to change systemic flaws in the American economy was through political and policy action.

Indeed, economists have noted in recent years that the emergence of more monopolies has contributed to more income inequality. With fewer companies and less competition, there are fewer options for employment, leaving employers with little incentive to increase wages. And as the Pew Research Center has found, American wages have stagnated for decades.

In a recent interview, Cicilline discussed with The Times of Israel his path toward becoming one of Washington’s chief anti-monopolists, along with reaction to the controversies engulfing Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and being a Jewish member of Congress in the age of Trump.

How did you get into the anti-monopoly space? 

I was a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer by trade. When this position came up as the ranking member in the last Congress, I talked to Jerry Nadler, who is now the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I said, “Jerry, I don’t really know anything about monopoly. I never studied antitrust in law school, it was not my field of practice.” And Jerry said, “Sometimes opportunities present themselves in Congress where you just need to kind of expand your mind and learn something completely new.”

It turns out it was the best decision I ever made because this is really, really important. I’ve come to understand that this concentration of economic power is at the core of why the economy is not working right for the vast majority of people, and why we have this really pernicious income inequality that’s really pulling at the fiber of our democracy.

How much of an issue do you think this will be in the presidential campaign? 

I don’t think there’s any question about it. People understand that this monopoly moment  has resulted in really an unprecedented concentration of economic power, in the hands of fewer and fewer powerful companies. People may not understand all the terminology, but they feel the effects of it everyday when they have less choice and they’re paying higher prices.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts speaks at a campaign event at Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal via AP)

There’s a lot of recognition from presidential candidates that this is really at the core of our economic policy as Democrats. Despite a stock market that’s through the roof and rising corporate profits, it’s still the case that too many people in this country are struggling to make ends meet, and part or the reason the economy is not working is because of monopolies.

Do you support Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up the tech giants? 

I have not studied Warren’s proposal in detail. I do think that there is no question that there is a real problem with the large technology platforms; they are really the gatekeepers both of information and commerce.

I think [the tech giants’] sheer size makes it more than just a question of economics and impacts on the market. They’re not just dealing with the sale of widgets. They really are the gateway into reliable and trustworthy information. So it’s really central to our democracy that we get a handle on this.

I think there are a lot of ways to think about how we can get these markets to be more competitive and respect consumers’ privacy and give them real control of their data. We’re just beginning the work of figuring out what are the best legislative steps we can take, and what we can do administratively through regulation. What we know for sure is that these large technology platforms cannot be trusted to police themselves or regulate themselves. It’s going to require Congressional action.

You’re a Jewish member of Congress. You’re also a progressive member of Congress. What are your thoughts on the Ilhan Omar controversies? Do you think what’s she’s said is anti-Semitic? 

I think Ilhan Omar has strong disagreements with Israeli policy, which she’s entitled to have and share, but I think to the extent that she uses language, whether intended or not, that is heard by people as anti-Semitic, that’s a problem. And I think she recognizes that.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat-Minnesota, in the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 12, 2019. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Sometimes there’s language that folks use, [without] intending to communicate a particular viewpoint, but it carries with it a long history. And words have meaning, and different meanings to different people. So I think what some people heard was clearly anti-Semitic. She may not have intended to be anti-Semitic. But you only avoid that by deepening your understanding of each other and developing relationships.

The president said her comments — and the anti-hate resolution that followed — showed the Democrats’ hatred of Israel and Jews. What was your response to that? 

This is a president who has, in every way, fueled divisions in this country. This is a president who has used anti-Semitic tropes. This is a president whose campaign sent out an image with a depiction of money falling from the skies with the Star of David and Hillary Clinton’s picture, who went before Jewish audiences and said, “You guys don’t like me cause I don’t want your money, you’re good dealmakers,” playing into all these anti-Semitic tropes. The president has said racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic things. The idea that he would be the arbiter of what is good and decent is kind of laughable to me.

The idea that Trump would be the arbiter of what is good and decent is kind of laughable to me

How did you get into politics? 

I was always interested in politics as a very young man. I used to go to the town council meetings when I was 15, before I could drive. Then I went to law school and moved to Washington. I began work as a public defender here, and I worked in the juvenile division and went to parts of the city that most people who visit Washington never see, some of the worst poverty I’d ever seen up until that point of my life.

I was representing kids who were in all kinds of trouble because they had grown up in unbelievable difficulties. And I tried to keep them out of jail and help them get back into school and get a job. I realized after doing that for a year that, while I was having a really big impact on those kids’ lives individually, if I was ever going to do something that would keep more young people from being born into that set of circumstances, it was through politics. So I moved back home and ran for office.

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