Jon Leibowitz is the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Prior to his tenure at the FTC, Leibowitz served as the democratic chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee where he focused on competition policy and telecommunications matters and also as chief counsel to Senator Herb Kohl. In the private sector, Leibowitz served most recently as vice president for congressional affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
Can you put your finger on any one event that was essential to making you the leader you are today?
I met my wife during the Clarence Thomas hearings. That’s a true Washington love story. She was covering the Supreme Court for the Washington Post and I was running Senator Kohl’s Judiciary Committee. I don’t know if this relates to leadership, but it certainly relates to happiness and the quality of my life.
If you ask me for something that contributed to the leader I am today, it was working with a bunch of people from both parties who really cared about public policy and working for terrific leaders in their own right.
I’ve been fortunate in the jobs I’ve had. I worked for Paul Simon who was a wonderful senator; for Herb Kohl, who was a terrific senator; and for the legendary, transcendent Washington legend Jack Valenti, who learned how to do things via Lyndon Johnson.
What leadership lessons did you learn during your time on Capitol Hill and how are you applying them to your role at the FTC?
I think things like being candid with folks, treating people honestly, listening to both sides of any issue, working hard at trying to accomplish your goals – those are the things that are always respected. They are the things you always want to see in your employees and that we see at the FTC.
You always have to respect the people you work with, even if you disagree with them. It’s partly because, in Washington, what goes around does come around. But, it’s also partly because it’s just the right thing to do. People respect you if you do things the right way.
When I came to the commission, I was fortunate enough to work with a number of wonderful other commissioners – real-life heroes like Orson Swindle, who was a commissioner and a POW in Vietnam and who once in a while would say, “You know, you’re doing a great job here, but I need to sit down and talk about one thing you shouldn’t be doing, or one thing you should do differently.” So, I’ve been really fortunate.
I’ve worked with people on the Hill, off the Hill, at the commission, who understand that there are often two points of view, that reasonable people can disagree, and that most people in government want to accomplish the same thing. They just come at it from different perspectives.
What are your top three priorities?
One is consumer privacy, which has both enforcement and a policy role. On the enforcement side, we brought major privacy cases, including Google and Facebook. In the Facebook case, we required that if they modify their privacy settings, they have to give an opt-in notice to consumer – or express affirmative consent, the technical term. It affects 850 million people worldwide – 200 million in America, 650 million people internationally. That’s an extraordinary reach for privacy protection.
Another major focus of ours, on the anti-trust side, is stopping what’s known as ‘Pay for Delay’ pharmaceutical settlements. These are sweetheart deals between brand-name drug companies and their generic competitors to delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs. They have cost consumers about $3.5 billion each and every year. They cost the federal government about $5 billion, according to CBO, over ten years. We have a two-pronged approach to stopping these anticompetitive agreements, with unanimous support from the commission. One part is a legislative approach and the other is trying to get a case to the Supreme Court. We have made lots of progress.
A third issue is stopping what we call ‘Last Dollar Frauds’ – stopping scammers who prey on consumers already made vulnerable by the economic downturn.
What are you doing to make sure your employees are engaged?
The Federal Trade Commission is a wonderful place to work because employees are so engaged in the mission of our agency. We have the benefit of being smaller than most other agencies. You can meet a lot of the employees. Commissioners disagree from time to time, but we are all committed to the mission of the agency. We’re extraordinarily bipartisan. I think that inspires employees and keeps them very much engaged in the mission. And because what we do is really about helping consumers and competition, you see tangible results in your work – and that’s enormously important for keeping your employees engaged as well.
What advice do you have for young federal leaders eager to grow and find opportunities similar to yours?
I don’t know that I have a magic bullet, but I think that for people who are trying to figure out, “Do I want to work for government or go into the private sector?” I would say that there is a real value in spending at least some of your life working in the public sector or doing public service. Your real income may never be maximized but your psychic income – working on behalf of the people – will be very high.