Lina Khan, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, faced more than three hours of criticism and ridicule from Republicans at a House hearing Thursday, as emboldened critics increasingly pressed the agency for its crackdown on the growing power of tech giants.
During the highly partisan hearing, Republicans accused Ms. Khan, 34, who has pursued an aggressive agenda of lawsuits and investigations against technology companies, of “harassing” the companies. Lawmakers, who repeatedly interrupted Ms. Khan mid-sentence, also ridiculed her for the FTC’s recent losses in antitrust cases and for wasting government resources.
“Now he’s 0 for 4 on merger lawsuits,” Rep. Kevin Kiley, a California Republican, said at the House Judiciary Committee hearing. “Why are you losing so much?”
The intense session capped a tough week that drew further scrutiny from the FTC. It was Khan’s first public appearance since a judge ruled Tuesday against the agency’s attempt to halt Microsoft’s $70 billion acquisition of Activision. It was a big loss in a technology case for the FTC after another judge ruled in May against its attempt to block Meta’s acquisition of a maker of virtual reality apps, Within.
Ms. Khan, a legal scholar, has become a lightning rod for her efforts to rein in corporate power and give the FTC more enforcement leverage. Since President Biden chose her to run the agency two years ago, she has said the FTC was too complacent and needed to pursue more lawsuits against companies, even if she didn’t always win. Even in court losses, she said, the cases expose the need to update antitrust laws for the digital age.
Khan’s aggressive agenda, which has spanned industries beyond technology, has rocked the agency, where two Republican commissioners and several top officials have resigned. Christine Wilson, one of the former Republican members, accused Ms Khan of abusing his power as president. This month, Mr. Biden nominated Virginia Attorney General Andrew Ferguson and Utah’s Melissa Holyoak to fill the Republican seats.
At Thursday’s hearing, Ms Khan seemed unfazed. She highlighted the FTC’s challenges to mergers in the pharmaceutical, semiconductor, defense and energy markets. Many of those challenges did not make it to court.
He said he did not bring cases he thought he would lose but, without referring to the Microsoft case, he acknowledged the risks of his strategy.
“We fight a lot when we believe there has been a violation of the law and unfortunately things don’t always go our way,” Ms Khan said.
The losses have not weakened his focus on the tech industry. On Thursday, the FTC appealed the court’s decision on Microsoft’s settlement with Activision. Also this week, it opened an investigation into artificial intelligence startup OpenAI, which makes the ChatGPT chatbot, for potentially harming consumers with privacy and security lapses and for spreading false information about people.
Ms. Khan’s strategy may take years to bear fruit, said Megan Gray, an attorney and former FTC staffer. “She knows this is a long-term effort and not some new Pollyanna antitrust push,” Ms. Gray said.
The White House reiterated its support for Ms Khan on Thursday. “President Khan has delivered results for families, consumers, workers, small businesses and entrepreneurs,” Michael Kikukawa, White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement.
At the hearing, this week’s court loss provided more ammunition for Republicans in their complaints against the FTC.
Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, criticized Ms. Khan’s trial by pursuing the case to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. Regulators rarely bring cases against so-called vertical mergers of two companies that do not compete directly. That was the case for Microsoft, a console maker, and Activision, a video game maker. And Sony, Microsoft’s competitor, has a large market share, Issa said.
He also criticized the FTC for pursuing a case to stop pharmaceutical giant Illumina from merging with Grail, a cancer test maker, after a judge in the agency’s internal court disagreed with its fight to avoid the agreement.
“My problem here today is that you are a bully,” Issa said. “The reality is that we are a global market, and for some reason you are only thinking about who you want to go to. And I can’t find your logic.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, accused the agency of “harassing” Twitter in its investigation of the company’s security practices. Jordan, who has accused Democrats of censoring Republican views, praised Twitter owner Elon Musk for relaxing restrictions on free speech.
“My concern is the sustained attack on Twitter when it changed ownership there,” Jordan said.
Ms. Khan responded: “We at the FTC don’t have an opinion on who should or shouldn’t own a business. The only thing that matters to us is that the company complies with the law.”
Democrats came to the defense of Ms Khan.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said it was the FTC’s job to investigate Twitter for violating a consent decree it agreed to more than a decade ago after previous security breaches.
“Unfortunately, I expect today to be the target of a barrage of personal attacks and wild allegations about the work of the FTC under your leadership,” Mr. Nadler said.