Last year a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey exposed a significant decline in employee satisfaction at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Ever since then, questions have lingered about how an agency that once ranked second “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” could have fallen to №22 in such a short time. The answer may lie with the swift politicization of the FTC under Chair Lina Khan.
Known for her influential essay “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” Kahn believes that the government should play a more aggressive role in enforcing antitrust law. She’s been instrumental in pushing the agency in a radical new direction far beyond that of its original mission to protect consumers from unfair business practices.
Khan’s many statements on competition policy over the years illustrate her unorthodox views. According to the Intelligencer, during a segment on Fox News regarding Amazon and anti-trust enforcement, Khan was quoted as responding to a host’s question with, “I think all decisions are political.” This would be a frighting admission by anyone at the helm of a major agency, let alone the FTC. Khan evidently sees no distinction between the decisions made based on standard protocol and those that are made based on political considerations.
Of course, Khan may still recognize the importance of showing some degree of impartiality when carrying out her responsibilities. However, if she truly believes that all decisions are political, then any of the decisions that led to the creation of the FTC or played a role in establishing U.S. antitrust laws were ultimately political and open to further political interpretation.
The last year exemplifies the agency’s shifting priorities under her leadership. From voicing support for new legislation to initiating legal action against major technology companies like Meta and Microsoft for supposed anticompetitive behaviors, the FTC has been busy laying the groundwork for an aggressive new antirust regime — one not necessarily supported by rank-and-file agency employees.
In July 2021, the FTC announced it was rescinding the 2015 antitrust policy statement, which the agency said “constrained” its ability to “stop anticompetitive business tactics under Section 5 of the FTC Act.” By “constrained,” the agency meant that the 2015 statement made it more difficult to bring complaints involving Section 5 that dealt with subjects mostly confined to existing antitrust laws — specifically the Sherman and Clayton Acts — and how they impacted competition and consumers. It therefore decided to remove this language so that it could interpret antitrust laws more broadly.
Building upon the July announcement, the agency issued a new statement in November regarding the scope of “Unfair Methods of Competition” under Section 5. This statement expands upon the agency’s belief that Congress had originally intended for the Commission’s powers to extend well beyond the reach of Sherman and Clayton Acts. From the perspective of the agency’s leadership, its intended purpose includes other important considerations that “negatively affect competition conditions” and stop “unfair methods of competition in their incipiency.” In other words, the FTC decided that the 2015 statement was too conservative and limiting and replaced it with a new statement that it believes grants it the authority to intervene in the market for any number of reasons.
Countless other examples reveal that the FTC increasingly sees itself as a political rulemaking agency, much like Khan first envisioned. The result has been catastrophic for employees, who are expected to handle a growing list of agency responsibilities and unrealistic expectations for the future. The disillusionment one would expect these conditions to create is now showing up in federal survey data.
Overall worker satisfaction at the FTC has dropped from a high of 89 percent in 2020 to just 60 percent by the end of 2021. Most alarming of all, just 53 percent of agency employees reported believing that their senior leaders maintained standards of “honesty and integrity.” While slightly above the 50 percent mark, this figure represents a 34-point drop from 2020. This finding alone should give anyone who ever doubted the politicization of the FTC immediate pause.
The fact of the matter is that the FTC has become increasingly political. That’s deeply unfortunate, not just for agency employees but also for the millions of Americans who rely on the FTC to stick to its mission of protecting consumers from unfair business practices. Perhaps it’s time for the FTC leadership to start listening to those Americans and its employees alike.
Nate Scherer is a Policy Analyst with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit us on www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.