The Biden administration has signed an executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy and to crack down on anticompetitive practices in economic sectors including technology, labor, and transportation. The order includes 72 initiatives by more than one dozen federal agencies to “promptly tackle” some of the pressing competition problems in the economy. According to the White House Fact Sheet, the measure aims to prompt leading antitrust agencies to “focus enforcement efforts on problems in key markets and coordinates other agencies’ ongoing response to corporate consolidation.”
The executive order focuses on competition within the transportation sector, a huge area of interest to the recycling industry. The order encourages the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) to tackle anticompetitive conduct and steep fees in the rail and sea shipping industries.
The order encourages the STB to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligation to treat other freight companies fairly. Consolidation in Class I freight railroads during the 1990s left the U.S. with seven freight railroads. According to the fact sheet, “Freight railroads that own the tracks can privilege their own freight traffic—making it harder for passenger trains to have on-time service—and can overcharge other companies’ freight cars.” The order encourages the FMC to ensure vigorous enforcement against shippers charging U.S. exporters exorbitant charges, and “consider further rulemaking to improve detention and demurrage practices and enforcement of related Shipping Act prohibitions.”
Like railroads, oceangoing shipping has also through rapid consolidation. While there the 10 largest shipping companies controlled 12% of the market in 2000. This year, they control more than 80% of the market, making things more difficult for domestic manufacturers exporting goods.
The executive order is giving momentum to the FMC and STB to tackle these problems. “This executive order is essentially saying, ‘Go get ‘em,’” says Billy Johnson, ISRI’s chief lobbyist. David Eaton, ISRI’s director of government relations agrees. “It’s immediate action and immediate relief for exporters,” he says. “It may allow them to compete and have options as opposed to having one fluctuating demurrage cost because of the monopolies and duopolies.” Having indicated these issues are top priority, the Biden administration is giving agencies a push to address some of the problems plaguing shippers. The order does not contain any new powers or funding for government agencies.
Within the technology sector, the order encourages the Federal Trade Commission to issue “unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment.” While the order aims to crack down on tech and other companies that impose restrictions on self- and third-party repairs, it may cause serious problems for electronics recyclers and the refurbished device markets.
“ISRI members do their work in a controlled situation and take worker safety, environmental protection, and other issues into consideration,” Johnson explains. “Now you’ll have people who think they can fix the phones on their own, and that’s going to be unsafe, uncertified, and they could harm themselves and others.”
Johnson and Eaton are curious to see how the order will change the legislative path for lawmakers who have been drafting bills related to transportation concerns. Johnson notes there are currently proposals aimed at reforming the Shipping Act of 1984, strengthening the authority of the FMC, and giving additional power to the STB. “A lot of people on the transportation committees in the House and Senate are aware of the shipping issues, and are already well on their way with legislative proposals,” Eaton says. As a result of the order, ISRI will work with members of Congress to ensure they are educated about issues of importance to recyclers.