It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over -- The Congressional Review Act & the Search for Zombie Regulations

Posted on December 7, 2017 by Allan Gates

Enacted in 1996, the Congressional Review Act (CRA) affords Congress the opportunity to review and disapprove final rules of federal agencies.  In the first 20 years of its existence, only one regulation was disapproved using the CRA.  In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, however, Congress invoked the CRA to disapprove thirteen separate regulations.  The White House advertised the CRA disapproval resolutions as the top legislative accomplishment of the administration’s first 100 days, proudly claiming that President Trump had signed more CRA resolutions than any other President in history.

By mid-summer most observers assumed the push to roll back Obama-era regulations using the CRA was over because the statute provides a narrow window of time for introducing resolutions of disapproval (generally 60 legislative days from the date the regulation is received by Congress), and it similarly limits the time within which expedited legislative procedures – including passage by simple majority vote in the Senate – can be used.

But wait, there’s more  – 

The window of time for introducing a disapproval resolution under the CRA begins to run on the day a regulation is submitted to Congress.  And it turns out agencies have not always been careful about sending their rules to Congress.   According to a 2014 report, hundreds of final regulations published in the Federal Register each year have never been reported to Congress.  Moreover, since the rules subject to review under the CRA are not limited to those published in the Federal Register, the report suggests there may be thousands of unreported interpretive rules, guidance documents, “Dear Colleague letters,” and the like.

Conservative activists aware of the inconsistent agency filing practices have begun to argue that all older regulations that were not reported to Congress are still subject to CRA review.  One conservative group has established a separate website, RedTapeRollback.com, proclaiming that:

“Powerful new ideas to use the CRA for older rules not reported to Congress are causing great excitement. This is a regulatory game changer!”

The website includes a database of rules it claims were not reported; and the website urges its visitors to, “Help us find and report more rules that were never submitted to Congress.”

The activists promoting use of the CRA to attack older, unreported regulations offer three rollback strategies.  First, private parties who are subject to the requirements of an older, unreported regulation could argue the regulation has never taken effect. There is certainly language in the CRA to support such an argument:

“Before a rule can take effect, the Federal agency promulgating such rule shall submit to each House of the Congress [a report containing a copy of the rule.]”

Another provision of the CRA, however, has language that may preclude a private party’s ability to obtain judicial review of claims based on the CRA:

“No determination, finding, action, or omission under this chapter shall be subject to judicial review.”

The second strategy calls for the Trump administration to identify undesirable rules that were never reported to Congress, state that the rules have never taken effect because of the agency’s failure to report them, and abandon or vacate the rules.  Under this scenario, the Trump administration would roll back undesirable rules immediately without the necessity of going through notice and comment rulemaking procedures otherwise required to repeal the rules.

The third strategy suggests the Trump administration could identify undesirable rules that were never reported, report them to Congress, and encourage Congress to adopt resolutions of disapproval.  If this occurs, Section 801(b)(2) of the CRA precludes reissuance of a disapproved rule in the same or similar form unless Congress affirmatively adopts legislation authorizing the promulgation.

It may well be that the activists’ frothy enthusiasm for expanded use of the CRA will come to very little.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that most of the unreported rules were insignificant, unobjectionable, or even exempt from reporting and review under the CRA.  Moreover, as a practical matter it is unlikely that Congress would be willing to devote significant amounts of floor time to debate the disapproval of a large number of older, unreported regulations.  Nevertheless, a cursory examination of RedTapeRollback’s database of supposedly unreported rules cannot help but give one pause.   Think the 2010 Chesapeake Bay TMDL and EPA’s 2008 Rapanos Guidance.

Interest in use of the CRA did not end with the flurry of disapproval resolutions in the first one hundred days of the Trump administration.  At a September House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform oversight hearing focused on agency compliance with the CRA, witnesses urged Congress to attack older regulations that were never reported to Congress.  In late October, Congress passed and the President signed a disapproval resolution invalidating an arbitration regulation adopted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency whose regulations are not ordinarily subject to Executive review and approval.

The recent surge in use of the CRA has not gone without opposition.  The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has filed suit to vacate a CRA resolution that nullified an Interior Department regulation limiting the methods used to hunt wolves and bears in Alaska wildlife refuges.  Among other things, CBD argues that the CRA limitation on issuance of future regulations without express approval of Congress infringes on the constitutionally protected separation of powers.  The court’s decision in the CBD case is likely to provide guidance on the reach of the language quoted above that limits judicial review of claims arising under the CRA.

Against this background it is safe to say that we have not seen the last of the CRA in the Trump administration.  As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

PASSING LESS GAS

Posted on December 5, 2017 by Keith Hopson

While some still debate climate change, on 11/22/17, eight of the oil and gas industry’s biggest players signed on to a set of Guiding Principles for reducing methane emissions across the natural gas value chain.  BP, Eni, Exxon Mobil, Repsol, Shell, Statoil, Total and Wintershall, in collaboration with international institutions, NGOs and academics, drafted the Guiding Principles.

The five guiding principles are: continually reduce methane emissions; advance strong performance across value chains; improve accuracy of methane emissions data; advance sound policy and regulations on methane emissions; and increase transparency.  Click here for the entire Guiding Principles document.

It will be interesting to see if these “voluntary principles” eventually become enforceable regulations.  Likewise, it will be interesting to see if these guidelines become “industry standards” and, accordingly, whether by acquiescence, private litigation, or lender requirements, become de facto regulations.

Time will tell.

It is significant to see so many major oil and gas industry actors responsibly, firmly and publicly commit to both reduce methane emissions and advance monitoring.  Perhaps now others in the industry will be more inclined to join the responsible eight and commit to pass less gas.

The Truth about Sue and Settle that Scott Pruitt Ignores

Posted on December 4, 2017 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

Seth Jaffe’s post about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sue and settle directive is right on. As he notes, the Administrator punts on the question at the core of his holy war against sue and settle: that is, what is the evidence that sue and settle has been abused in the way he presumes?  In particular, was sue and settle systematically used during the Obama administration as a vehicle of collusion between environmental groups and sympathetic agency officials, catering to the greens through rulemaking in secret? That was the characterization advanced by the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business and anti-regulatory groups that made sue and settle a battle cry in their war against Obama’s environmental policies. Without citing any evidence, Pruitt has proceeded as if that characterization is correct.

A careful, fact-based, analytically disciplined examination of the practice of sue and settle during the Obama administration shows that this characterization is not correct.  That examination appeared in a law review note by a former law student of mine, Ben Tyson, who went on to clerk for Chief Justice Roberts on the Supreme Court.  I recommend that anyone who is interested in this issue -- and who delights in careful research and analysis – read the entire article. But here’s a brief summary for those who don’t have the time.

Tyson’s analysis is based on eighty-eight sue and settle cases arising under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered species act during the Obama administration.  This data set includes twenty-eight cases that were missed by the Chamber of Commerce in its 2013 report, Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors.  In his analysis Tyson is careful to distinguish between decision-forcing consent decrees, which simply require the agency to do what it is statutorily required to do and do not have a potentially adverse effect on public participation in rulemaking, and substantive consent degrees, in which the agency agrees to propose a particular regulatory change, with dismissal of the litigation dependent upon adoption of that change after public notice and comment. Of the total eighty-eight sue and settle suits, seventy-nine were brought by environmental groups.  But all but four of these suits by environmentalists sought decision-forcing consent decrees, not substantive outcomes. And in three of those four cases, there was at least one industry intervenor that had a right to be heard on the proposed decree.  Tyson concludes: “Sue-and-settle, when used by environmental group plaintiffs, is not principally about secret, backdoor rulemaking.” Instead, overwhelmingly, environmental groups used litigation to enforce existing statutory requirements. 

Ironically, although industry brought far fewer sue and settle suits overall (only nine compared to the environmental groups’ 79), five of those suits resulted in consent decrees with substantive terms. And there was no environmental intervenor in any of those cases to contest entry of the consent decree. Based on the data, industry used sue and settle to achieve substantive outcomes more often than environmental groups. And the total number of substantive sue and settle suits by industry and environmental groups was relatively small (9, or 10% of the 88 cases). Improving public participation is always worth attention, but one wonders what all the fuss was about.