Senator Amy Klobuchar Makes Her Antitrust Case to Jamie Lee Curtis
Amy Klobuchar began the year in a moment of triumph. As a cohead of the inauguration committee for President Biden, she stood on the steps of the Capitol building on January 20 and announced, “This is the day our democracy picks itself up, brushes off the dust, and does what America always does: goes forward as a nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” For the senator from Minnesota, the moment was not a declaration of victory, but a promise that the real work was just beginning. Since she was first appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2006, Klobuchar has established herself as a moderate presence in an increasingly polarized Congress, willing to reach across the aisle to push forward legislation, such as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in 2015, and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act she led the following year. But despite her Midwestern demeanor, the University of Chicago Law School–trained attorney has plenty of fight in her, too. In 2018, during the heated confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the senator drew national attention for her relentless questioning surrounding his drinking habits. In a moment that went viral, a defensive Kavanaugh lashed out at Klobuchar, and apologized shortly thereafter. Klobuchar’s performance during that hearing—“Where is the bravery in this room?” she asked her Republican colleagues—gave her the exposure she needed to launch a campaign for president. Shortly after she bowed out of that race in March of last year, Klobuchar, whose endorsement of Joe Biden helped propel him to the nomination, introduced legislation to deter anticompetitive abuses from large companies. “We have a major monopoly problem in this country,” she said at the time, “which harms consumers and threatens free and fair competition across our economy.” But that was only a prelude to last February, when she unveiled the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act, a sweeping bill that puts Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Google directly in its crosshairs. This spring, she’ll make her case even further in the book Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, but before that, she made it here, to Jamie Lee Curtis.
JAMIE LEE CURTIS: I’m going to call you Amy, because we’re having a conversation on a Sunday morning. I was just speaking with your staff, asking if they had gotten any sleep.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR: Oh, no. They were up most of the night. It was really something. I went 36 hours with three 15-minute naps, so less than an hour’s sleep. It was really important that we got the pandemic legislation done [The American Rescue Plan], and that’s why we went around the clock. It’s really exciting that we have this major increase in the number of vaccines being distributed so we’re feeling like we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
CURTIS: It’s such a huge piece of legislation for the underserved in our country. It’s thrilling that it was passed in such glorious fashion. It’s something I brought up with my husband [the filmmaker Christopher Guest] the other day, because we know that the country wants this. We’re hearing it from everywhere. I’m not in politics, but I read a lot. What’s so shocking to me is how the Republicans could be so blind to think that their constituents will not recognize that they stood in the way of this relief. It must drive you crazy!
KLOBUCHAR: But my focus is getting things done, as is Joe Biden’s. He said at the very beginning, he’s representing everyone in this country. And that’s how I look at my job, too. People who voted for you, people who didn’t. What was so interesting about the relief bill is that while Republican elected officials tried to block it, a whole lot of Republican constituents wanted us to get it done. You’ve got moms, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or Independents, who are having to bounce their toddlers on their knees while they have their laptops on their desks. You’ve got first graders having to learn to read online and learn to use the mute button. It’s been hard on every family in America. It’s been so hard on our seniors and grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s really been tearing at the fabric of life in America. The other thing we’ve been really focused on is just reclaiming our democracy. From the moment the inauguration took place on that stage, where the insurrectionists had come in with poles and broken the glass two weeks earlier, it was all about, as I said that day, dusting off our democracy, lifting ourselves up, and going forward.
CURTIS: And you are a shining example. The president’s empathy for other people? You have it, too. I felt it when we met. I feel it when I see you speak publicly on behalf of your job, and I heard you talk about it during your own personal campaign for the presidency. It’s our humanness that connects us. And I think you represent that so very well. As I was waiting for you to jump on this call, usually it’s silent, but instead, it was the Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It could have been your campaign song. “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.” It made me smile, because it’s so much of who you are.
KLOBUCHAR: Can we have a mutual fan club here? Because “never gonna give you up” is a little bit the story of you, Jamie Lee Curtis. I met you in the middle of a cold day in Iowa, where you were campaigning from place to place and having to warn people not to be scared when some of your fans in the back would bring daggers for you to sign because of the Halloween movies, and how you reinvented yourself decade after decade, being such an incredible mom and also being willing to talk out about sobriety and everything you’ve been through. And then to top it off, looking gorgeous in your yellow dress at the Golden Globes with that photo that went viral? That’s pretty good when you’re in your 60s.
CURTIS: We were strangers and we were put in a car, and we were driving through the farmland, and it was the bleak midwinter. It was cold. There was a huge storm on its way, and we were matched.
KLOBUCHAR: By some weird dating service in politics.
CURTIS: Yes, it was “poli-date,” and you and I both signed up and we matched. I was the actress who was lending my support to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and you were the person in politics who was lending your experience, strength, and hope to her campaign, giving it some needed street cred.
KLOBUCHAR: And you were taking photos of drainage ditches. I explained to you that it was just a drainage ditch in the Midwest and that we could be late to our next event, but you still took a photo of it, and it was beautiful.
CURTIS: I walked gingerly on the side of the road to try to cross this bridge so that I could get a photograph of the drainage ditch. Maybe if Interview is lucky, I will provide that image for them. [Ed. note: She did. It’s on page 18.] But I want to start by talking about your family background. I was so taken by your great-grandfather’s story, and your grandfather’s story of the 10 children.
KLOBUCHAR: I told this story in part because my great-grandparents came over from Slovenia, and they were shipped up to the iron ore mines in Northern Minnesota to work. They had 10 kids, and one of them died quite young. But back then, it was normal for the men who worked in the mines to die very young. My grandfather and my grandma ended up helping to raise those kids, the youngest one named Hannah, who was taken to an orphanage in Duluth when she was 10 because they just couldn’t handle it. My grandfather vowed that he would get her back. And two years later, he got one of his relatives’ cars and drove to Duluth and brought her home. And he literally spent his whole life working 1,500 feet underground in the mines. He would tell stories of how the unions and organizing made those mines safer. He spent his entire life working for what were essentially monopolists back then. And then at the same time, I’m driving with my mom in her little red Comet and seeing the big house of James J. Hill, who is a big industrialist monopolist who owned a lot of the railroads and mines up there, and was actually the first trust that Teddy Roosevelt sued way back then when he came in as the trust-busting president. And, literally, my relatives built that huge house with its 40 rooms and big paintings and grand staircases. Taking on big interests came from my family, like it does for so many people in politics.
CURTIS: I loved that description of him being so far down in that mine and here you are, his descendant, so high up there during the inauguration. I can see the connection of your family’s experiences and your own, theirs and your understanding that you have a mission, which is to fight for the little guy. That really moves me, Amy, because it’s at your core. It’s what you seem to do. You don’t pull punches. You are who you are, and yet you’re fighting for something so important. I didn’t really understand the word “trust” because your book is called Antitrust. “Don’t trust the trust.” What I read about the beginnings of the term “trust” is that it was the way for the rich to gather their stuff together and eliminate competition.
KLOBUCHAR: That’s exactly what it is. They found ways to not have to compete against each other. This goes way back to what they call the Gilded Age, when the railroad trust, Standard Oil, beef trust, sugars trust, and all these trusts realized that when they were competing, they were competing for workers, so they had to give better wages. It meant they were competing for prices, so they had to have lower prices for consumers and farmers. They said, “Hey, let’s form these trusts, and then we don’t have to compete with each other and we can charge whatever prices we want and pay lower wages for the employees.” So what happened was that Teddy Roosevelt and some of the other presidents came in and actually ran political campaigns on taking on these trusts, because people were so upset about what was happening. That’s how you have all these laws called antitrust laws. They’ve been made better over the years, and it’s been Democrats and Republicans, because a lot of Democrats see what this can do to capitalism if you have big monopolies. Republicans started out believing in capitalism and the free market. It was even Adam Smith who said, at the time of the founding fathers, that monopolies were “an overgrown standing army that have become formidable to the government.” When you fast-forward to the present day, now we have this new Gilded Age, right? Google controls over 90 percent of the search market. Facebook is so dominant in social media and it’s bought out its competitors like Instagram or WhatsApp. Or in other areas, like online travel. People think they’re getting all these deals when they shop for travel online. Well, actually, 90 percent of the bookings are controlled by two big companies. One company owns Booking.com, Kayak, and Priceline, and another company owns Expedia, Hotels.com, Trivago, and Travelocity. I think John Oliver explained it best when he went through all the consolidation across industries, and at the end, he said something like, “If this makes you want to die, good luck because the casket industry is now owned by only three companies.” And in fact, one bought another so it’s really only two companies.
CURTIS: I grew up with the game Monopoly, and I looked into it a little bit and discovered that it started out in 1903 as something called The Landlord’s Game. What was fascinating about it is that it originally had two sets of rules. There was an anti-monopolist set of rules, where everyone was rewarded, and then there was a monopolist set of rules, created to crush opponents. When people play Monopoly, some feel that you earn your way through it, and then others just want to own everything and crush. It’s funny to me because obviously that’s what’s been going on in the past and, as you’ve just said, in the present. I want to bring up someone who I actually knew about. She reminds me of you. Her name is Ida Tarbell, and she who was the woman who exposed Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, and caused him to have to break it up, even though he continued to own all of the little companies that it was broken up into. Her spirit reminds me of you.
KLOBUCHAR: Ms. Tarbell was what they called a “muckraker.”
CURTIS: So, what is a “muckraker?”
KLOBUCHAR: Basically, they’re investigative reporters. They’re raking up muck. She exposed Standard Oil at the time when there were hardly any women journalists. She wrote this story that literally led to the breakup of Standard Oil. And Lizzie Magie, who actually invented the original Monopoly game, got completely screwed when it turned into the pro-Monopoly game. A guy got all the money for it, and she got 500 bucks when it got sold. All these stories, I think, are of people who can change the world.
CURTIS: These were women.
KLOBUCHAR: Yes. And while it’s a wonky subject, I wanted to write this book, Antitrust, to make sure that people understood the passion behind it, where it’s coming from, why it matters, and what we can do about it. That’s why I’m leading this major bill, which has a bunch of provisions in it that are actually bipartisan. It says, “If you’re going to take on huge conglomerates, you have to have the resources to do it. Let’s restructure how we’re paying for stuff.” This won’t come from taxpayers, it’ll come off the big companies that pay for government lawyers. We’re now a shadow of what we were in the time of AT&T’s breakup by the FTC and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. That was during Reagan, they had more people working at those agencies. And so we need to build them up again, actually bring the cases. The second thing it says is, “Let’s look at these standards.” The Supreme Court has been rejecting any attempts to use the antitrust laws for one 15-year period because of the conservative justices. They literally rejected every single case. We need to change, as we have over time, some of the standards to make it easier to prove the cases. There is a lot of evidence out there, including Mark Zuckerberg’s emails, when he wrote about buying Instagram or WhatsApp, and I’m paraphrasing it: “These businesses are nascent, but if they grow they’ll become disruptive to us, so we should buy them.” That’s the problem. They’re buying small competitors so then no one can ever grow to the point where maybe they have better privacy rules. Maybe they have better policies on misinformation. Putting the resources in, changing some of the standards as we have over time to make it easier to bring the cases, will make a huge difference for consumers so that they have more choice; a huge difference for small businesses, specifically minority-owned and women-owned businesses where it’s harder for them to start up; and a huge difference for employees, because they get to choose who they work for because there’s competition in the market.
CURTIS: It’s so powerful at this moment to hear you talking about this bill, which sounds like it’s bipartisan. Do you have good support on both sides?
KLOBUCHAR: Right now, it’s a Democratic bill, which isn’t surprising because it’s the initial big bill.
CURTIS: Do you have consensus with the other stuff?
KLOBUCHAR: I am literally taking on the biggest companies the world has ever known, and they happen to have a lot of lobbyists. This is going to be a big fight. I don’t want to mask it. But I do have people like Senator Chuck Grassley, because he believes in small farmers, on a piece of the bill with me. There are other Republicans who are interested in other parts of the bill. That is how I am moving this. Right now it’s one big bill. It’ll probably move in parts, but it’s possible I can keep it all together. The House has done great work. Congressman [David] Cicilline and Congressman [Jerry] Nadler have been leading this whole investigation last year about the tech companies and the gateway situation, so they are also working with me on bills.
CURTIS: Good luck in your fight. I think you will be victorious and will move this needle in a big, big way. I look forward to riding in a car in Iowa with you again.
Photography Assistant: Roy Beeson Jr.