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Tom Cotton tells Kroger CEO not to expect help from Republicans

By Sarah May
|
December 14, 2022

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R) pulled no punches late last month during a Judiciary Committee hearing, bluntly informing Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen that as long as companies like his censor and penalize conservative-leaning employees, they should not expect GOP assistance in fighting Democrats pushing for greater regulation of their industries, as the Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

The dust-up occurred in the context of Kroger's proposed acquisition of supermarket rival Albertsons in a mega-deal some congressional Democrats believe warrants closer scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Massive deal unveiled

Back in October, it was announced that a deal had been reached for Kroger to purchase Albertson's for $34.10 per share in a total agreement worth $24.6 billion, according to CNBC.

The proposed merger would link Kroger, the second-largest grocer in the country, with Albertson's, which stands in fourth place in terms of national market share.

While the boards of both companies voted unanimously to approve the transaction, it cannot be completed without receiving the green light from federal regulatory authorities.

For the deal to move forward, regulators would need to assess whether a combination of the two enterprises would result in too much combined dominance in and control over the grocery industry.

Merger concerns raised

Given the massive market share of Kroger and Albertson's separately, let alone combined, a number of Democrats and union leaders swiftly began voicing concerns over the possible linkage of the firms, with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) among those demanding heightened FTC review of the deal, as Seattle NBC affiliate KING noted.

Jayapal contends that the merger would severely restrict competition in the grocery sector, harm consumers, cripple small business and deal a serious blow to workers.

The congresswoman also raised concerns about what she views as the likelihood of higher prices and reduced product choices on store shelves resulting from the deal.

McMullen mounts defense

Teeing up Cotton's comments during the aforementioned hearing before the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Kroger's McMullen attempted to defend the proposed merger against criticisms that it would harm consumers and competitors alike, as CNBC reported separately.

“I just don't see less competition going forward,” McMullen said, adding, “[i]t's easy for customers to make a right turn or a left turn.”

The Kroger CEO also argued that the merged firms could in fact lower food costs for consumers and offer enhanced customer experiences during a time of rapid industry transformation.

Cotton's consternation

However, what Cotton seemed to characterize as McMullen's belief that Republican lawmakers should be doing everything possible to counter Democrats' aggressive regulatory stance fell on deaf ears, at least in terms of the senator from Arkansas.

Cotton began by explaining that Republicans certainly have a tradition of championing free enterprise and fighting against excessive government regulation, corporate heads should not expect their help if their firms implement polices that censor or otherwise discriminate against employees with conservative views.

The legislator was speaking in reference to a 2020 lawsuit filed by two Kroger employees from his home state who claimed they were fired for declining to wear aprons emblazoned with a rainbow symbol of the sort often used to signify support for the LGBTQ community, as NBC News noted at the time.

That lawsuit – which has since settled – alleged that the employees sought a religious accommodation to the company's dress code so that they could cover the rainbow symbol with their store name tags – a request that was denied.

Cautionary tale

Cotton made no bones about his frustration with CEOs like McMullen jetting into D.C. and expecting favors from those against whom their company policies are blatantly biased, saying, “I've cautioned them for years that if they silence conservatives and center-right voters...if they discriminate against them in their company, they probably shouldn't come and ask Republican senators to carry the water for them whenever our Democratic friends want to regulate them or block their mergers.”

To those who disregard that admonition and persist in demanding Republican help, Cotton said simply and acerbically, “Best of luck.”