How Jeff Bezos Will Change Washington

Photograph by Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg

The news arrived in Washington like a thunderclap late Monday afternoon: Amazon founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos was buying the storied Washington Post for $250 million. The initial analysis revolved around the question of whether Bezos could revivify an industry that’s suffered steep, continuing losses with no end in sight. In a statement, he hastened to reassure employees that “[t]he values of the Post do not need changing” and that the current management team, including editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, will remain in place.

But it’s impossible to imagine that the views and values of the paper’s owner won’t filter through to the print (and digital!) product. The Post is an institution with considerable influence in Washington, which means that Bezos himself will now wield real influence over public policy. That raises the question of how he will affect Washington and its policy and political debates.

Here are a few areas in which Bezos’s influence could be felt:

Online sales tax: In the past few years, Amazon has shifted from staunchly opposing an Internet sales tax to embracing the idea and even lobbying for it. In May, the U.S. Senate passed just such a tax (“The Marketplace Fairness Act”), but Washington being Washington, the bill has now bogged down in the House.

National security: In June, a Government Accountability Office report revealed that Amazon had won a $600 million contract for private “cloud” computing services with the CIA. That’s in addition to GovCloud, which already does cloud hosting for the U.S. government. To some degree, the business relationship with the federal government will complicate Bezos’s ownership of the Post because it presents potentially thorny conflict-of-interest issues. But the government’s move to the cloud in general—and Amazon’s specifically—seem unlikely to slow down.

Union organizing: None of Amazon’s 90,000 U.S. workers are union members and Bezos apparently would like to keep it that way. Earlier this year, Amazon got into a “skirmish” with its 8,000 unionized German workers, a clash triggered by a German TV broadcast of a documentary of warehouse working conditions. According to the New York Times, the program even “implied that Amazon used neo-Nazi thugs to keep workers in line.” The company has already come under fire for deplorable conditions in some of its U.S. warehouses, as a high-profile investigation by the Morning Call revealed two years ago.

Antitrust: Amazon was one of the big winners in the July federal court decision that found Apple had violated antitrust laws by colluding to increase e-book prices. But Amazon is a behemoth that could one day encounter antitrust problems of its own. Having a serious footprint in Washington could make a big difference for the company. At the height of its power in the 1990s, Microsoft opted to ignore Washington and then paid a steep price when the U.S. Justice Department came after it (a tale wonderfully told by John Heilemann in his book, Pride Before the Fall). With a proverbial “seat at the table” in Washington, Bezos and Amazon will have opportunities to shape the debate in ways that Bill Gates and Microsoft never could.

In fact, the true measure of Bezos’s influence may not manifest itself in any single issue or even a checklist of issues. Whether or not he intends to use his new-found power, Bezos, by virtue of owning the Post, has put himself in a position that other billionaires, no matter how willing they are to bankroll presidential candidates and pet causes, cannot possibly match and probably don’t fully understand.

One trend over the last few years has been the increasingly large sums that billionaires are willing to devote to try to influence policy debates. Privately, many Washington political consultants sneer at this as “dumb money,” though that doesn’t stop them from greedily lining their pockets with it. The valid criticism embedded in that term is that there’s only so much that TV and Internet persuasion campaigns can accomplish, no matter how many millions of dollars are put behind them—and it’s usually a whole lot less than the check-writers imagine. (For example, I can’t imagine any people changing views on the Keystone pipeline debate after watching this bizarre, billionaire-backed TV ad that just went up.)

Owning the Washington Post will allow Bezos the opportunity to weave his views into the very fabric and culture of the capital, shaping the public debate and the outlook of “influencers” at a kind of Ur-level that is far more effective than any political ad. In fact, I’d wager that this will happen to some degree organically, even if Bezos doesn’t launch an explicit editorial crusade. Such is the power of owning the Washington Post.

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