“Folks are tired of being played for suckers,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday at the start of a meeting with his White House Competition Council, the latest event designed to cast the Democrat as standing for consumers against those trying to take their money unscrupulously.
The meeting of the White House group, launched as a result of a July 2021 executive order, coincided with the announcement of actions aimed at rental housing, corporate mergers and groceries.
“We’re cracking down on hidden junk fees in rental housing,” the president said in the State Dining Room. “The application fees can be a profit center for landlords. Some accept applications from hundreds of potential tenants, far more than they could seriously consider renting to, just to collect these fees.”
The president spoke of cases where an application fee for an apartment may be $100 when the actual cost of the application process is $20. He said that large online real estate websites have agreed to promote transparency with regard to fees for rental units.
Ahead of the president’s meeting, a senior administration official cited the problem of surprise fees in the apartment-hunting process.
“Once an individual manages to secure an apartment, they’re often surprised to be charged a number of fees just to move in or to cover services that they assumed were included to begin with, things like a few bucks to pay your rent online or a $10 monthly trash fee — services that you assumed were included in the underlying rent,” the official told reporters.
In another effort launched Wednesday, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission unveiled new guidelines for merger-related antitrust considerations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was quick to criticize that announcement, saying the guidelines “are designed to chill merger activity, which will deny smaller companies access to the capital and expertise they need to grow and place U.S. businesses at a disadvantage with their global competitors.”
“We are very confident in the actions that we announced today,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday ahead of Biden’s promotion of the moves. “Competition is a key pillar of Bidenomics.”
Anticompetitive food markets
The White House and Secretary Tom Vilsack also announced that the Agriculture Department will work with attorneys general in 31 states and the District of Columbia to address anticompetitive markets in agriculture and related industries that result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers and producers.
The states and the USDA will carry out the partnership through the Center for State Enforcement of Antitrust and Consumer Protection Laws, a nonpartisan organization.
Under the partnership, the Agriculture Department will offer expertise and funding for state attorneys general to take on complex cases and to aid research and academic work that could be used to lay the foundation for future cases. The participating attorneys general include Democrats and Republicans.
A senior official said the work by the Agriculture Department and state law enforcement officials will “ramp up enforcement of antitrust and consumer protection laws that will help stop conduct like price fixing or price gouging in grocery retail markets, meat and poultry processing and other agricultural markets.”
“By placing necessary resources where they are needed most and helping states identify and address anticompetitive and anti-consumer behavior, in partnership with federal authorities, through these cooperative agreements we can ensure a more robust and competitive agricultural sector,” Vilsack, who joined Biden at the White House, said in a statement.
In a briefing call, administration officials said the announcements represent varying degrees of fine-tuning steps to increase transparency in areas such as rental housing fees for the general public. As a condition of the call, participants could be identified only as senior administration officials.
The announcements from the various departments and agencies come amid opposition from congressional Republicans and outside groups including the chamber.
One official said critics missed the mark with opposition to steps such as the Agriculture Department’s providing funds to smaller and independent meat and poultry processors to expand or build new facilities in rural areas. In June, the department announced $115.4 million in grants to increase regional processing capacity and competition.
“By investing in competition, we’re also investing in small businesses,” the official said.
House Republican appropriators underscored their disapproval of one area of the Agriculture Department’s competition agenda with a policy rider in the fiscal 2024 Agriculture spending bill. A provision in that bill would block the use of funds to finalize pending rules championed by the administration and Vilsack as a way to give farmers and ranchers a stronger negotiating hand with meatpackers and poultry companies.
The actions and announcements come as Biden prepares to seek another term with the public giving him minimal credit for the state of the economy. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed just 30 percent of adults nationally believe the U.S. is doing better than other countries in recovering from the economic chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though empirical data about economic conditions supports that conclusion.
Jean-Pierre cited earlier administration actions on increasing competition, including allowing the sale of hearing aids over-the-counter, and she responded to the survey.
“The polls don’t tell the whole story, they don’t tell the full story, and we understand that,” she said. “The data shows a combination of employment and inflation near historic low, that’s what we have seen. Consumer confidence is increasing, and also wages are rising.”