Congress Moves to Increase Judicial Oversight of Federal Agencies

On January 17, 2017, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 5, the “Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017.”  Buried deep within its pages is Title II, the “Separation of Powers Restoration Act.”  That title, although only two sections long, dramatically changes the legal landscape for challenges to the actions of federal regulatory agencies.  Currently, in adjudicating challenges to administrative rulemaking and implementing actions, the federal courts invoke the precedent established in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 844 (1984).  In that case, the Supreme Court held: “We have long recognized that considerable weight should be accorded to an executive department's construction of a statutory scheme it is entrusted to administer...”  In adopting Chevron, the Supreme Court effectively gives administrative agencies almost complete deference, not only in the interpretation of the regulations they implemented, but also, and more controversially, in the way the agencies carry out the mandates of those regulations.  Thus, challengers seeking to use the judicial system to point out and rectify what are perceived as misapplication of the regulations, butt up against the reluctance of the courts to question or interfere with the agency’s construction of the regulation or the evidence and its application in carrying out the agency’s order.  In Title II, the Congress has stood the current deferential standard on its head. 

In an apparent attempt to reduce the power of federal agencies, Congress has rejected the Supreme Court’s construct in Chevron and replaced the currently awarded deference with a charge to the courts to 

“decide de novo all relevant questions of law, including the interpretation of constitutional and statutory provisions, and rules made by agencies. If the reviewing court determines that a statutory or regulatory provision relevant to its decision contains a gap or ambiguity, the court shall not interpret that gap or ambiguity as an implicit delegation to the agency of legislative rule making authority and shall not rely on such gap or ambiguity as a justification either for interpreting agency authority expansively or for deferring to the agency’s interpretation on the question of law.”
Title II, § 202.
 
As a consequence, the courts will have to independently explore the meaning and applicability of, as well as the agency’s compliance with, applicable laws and rules, based on the facts adduced in the case.  This change is momentous because it levels the playing field in an arena that has, traditionally, been dramatically tipped in favor of governmental agencies’ interpretation and implementation of regulations.  
 
In summary, the legislative process has not yet run its course.  It is of course possible that H.R. 5 will be gutted and Title II deleted.  However, given the composition and disposition of the current Congress, it is likely that the Separation of Powers Restoration Act will be the reality in the arena of challenges to governmental rulemaking in the very near future.   
 

Legal Analysis of the FAA's Slot Auction Rule for JFK and Newark Part 2

Analysis of Legal Issues Regarding Slot Auctions, Part Two.

Having established previously that the FAA does not have specific authority to lease or otherwise dispose of slots, FAA turns to its general power to dispose of property in order to justify its auctioning of the slots.  Under 49 U.S.C. 106 FAA is authorized to:

acquire, construct, improve, repair, operate, and maintain . . . real and personal property . . . and to lease to others such real and personal property . . .” as well as to enter into “such contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other transactions as may be necessary to carry out the functions of FAA.

49 U.S.C. 106(l).  In addition 49 U.S.C. 40110 authorizes FAA “[to] dispose of an interest in property for adequate compensation . . .”  Thus, the FAA theorizes, if a slot is “property,” then by virtue of these three provisions it has all the authority it needs to dispose of the “property.”  

Leaving aside the statutory construction arguments that the FAA’s property disposition authority does not extend to such evanescent and intangible property rights as “slots,” the real legal question comes down to this:  Are slots a property right owned by the FAA?  

The controversy turns an interpretation of Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12 (2000), which was mentioned in the GAO Legal Opinion, IATA’s comments and ATA’s commentsCleveland stands for the proposition that the government’s regulatory powers to issue licenses to do something which otherwise would not be permitted does not create a property right for the government.  It only becomes a property right to the licensee after the issuance of the license.  In Cleveland, Louisiana claimed that licenses it issued to run video poker devices were its “property.”  The U.S. Supreme Court saw it a little differently:

Without doubt, Louisiana has a substantial economic stake in the video poker industry.  The State collects an upfront “processing fee” for each new license application . . ., a separate “processing fee” for each renewal application . . ., an “annual fee” from each device owner . . ., an additional “device operation” fee . . ., and, most importantly, a fixed percentage of net revenue from each video poker device . . . It is hardly evident, however, why these tolls should make video poker licenses “property” in the hands of the State.  The State receives the lion share of its expected revenue not while the licenses remain in its own hands, but only after they have been issued to licensees.  Licenses pre-issuance do not generate an ongoing stream of revenue.  At most, they entitle the State to collect a processing fee from applicants for new licenses.  Were an entitlement of this order sufficient to establish a state property right, one could scarcely avoid the conclusion that States have property rights in any license or permit requiring an up front fee, including drivers’ licenses, medical licenses, and fishing and hunting licenses.  Such licenses, as the Government itself concedes, are “purely regulatory.”

531 U.S. at 22. In other words, absent a statutory provision, so long as the “property” (the license in Cleveland) is the product of the Government’s regulatory power, or its police powers, it is not property while it is in the Government’s hands.  In this case, it would seem, based on Cleveland, that since the FAA derives its authority to assign slots from its regulatory authority over “navigable airspace,” slots are not property rights in the hands of the FAA.

FAA attempts to get around Cleveland by asserting that “Section 40110(a)(2) does not speak to whether the FAA actually owns property that is being disposed of.  It only speaks to the disposal of a property interest.  Only the FAA has authority to assign the use of navigable airspace under section 40103.”  73 Fed.Reg. at 60549.  The FAA concludes that even though the property right is created “at the time of transference” of the slot, it still falls within its property disposition power under 40110(a)(2) since it is “disposing of” a “property right.”  This however, ignores the fact that the FAA has no property interest to “dispose of,” and that in assigning slots it carrying out its regulatory duties with respect to the airspace.

Similar to the FAA, in Cleveland, Louisiana tried to compare its interest in video poker licenses to a patent holder’s interest in a patent that she has not yet licensed.  The court rejected that argument:

Louisiana does not conduct gaming operations itself, it does not hold video poker licenses to reserve that prerogative, and it does not “sell” video poker licenses in the ordinary commercial sense.  Furthermore, while a patent holder may sell her patent . . ., the State may not sell its licensing authority.  Instead of patent holder’s interest in an unlicensed patent, the better analogy is to the Federal Government’s interest in an unissued patent.  That interest, like the State’s interest in licensing video poker operations, surely implicates the Government’s role as sovereign, not as property holder.

531 U.S. at 23-24.  In other words, if it is not a property right until after it is sold or licensed, you do not have a “property right” to “dispose of.”  The FAA’s assigning use of navigable airspace “implicates the Government’s role as sovereign, not as property holder.”  Thus, it seems that since the Supreme Court has spoken on this issue, the FAA will be hard pressed to successfully argue that it can auction slots by virtue of its property disposition authority.

Next Post: Even if slots are FAA property, does the FAA violate the IOAA by accepting money for them?

 

Legal Analysis of the FAA's Slot Auction Rule for JFK and Newark Part 1

Pt. 1: Setting The Stage

When the FAA adopted its slot auction rules for LaGuardia, JFK  and Newark Airports, it did so despite the fact that the GAO had issued a legal opinion stating that it believed that the FAA did not have a legal basis to conduct auctions of slots at the airports. 

Needless to say, the FAA's decision brought some criticism from Congress.  Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the FAA Inspector General, Hon. Calvin Scovel, requesting that he look into the matter and assess whether the FAA's actions were "potential willful violations of the Purpose Statute [31 U.S.C. 1301(a)] and the Antideficiency Act [31 U.S.C. 1341(a)(1)(A)]." 

The stakes got higher when, on October 10, 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey filed a Petition for Review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  That Petition was followed on October 14, 2008, by similar Petitions for Review filed by the International Air Transport Association and the Air Transport Association of America.  All of the Petitions for Review were consolidated by the Court on October 27, 2008.

There seems to be agreement among all of the parties that the FAA has the regulatory authority to impose caps on hourly arrival and departure slots based on its authority under 49 U.S.C. 40103(b)(1) and (2), which allows the FAA to "ensure efficient use of the airspace."  The issue that separates the FAA from GAO, IATA, ATA and PANYNJ is whether the FAA may raise funds in connection with its assignment of slots through a slot auction, imposing a user fee, assessing a tax, or by some other mechanism.

In analyzing this fundamental disagreement some consensus emerges.  It is agreed that Congress has granted FAA explicit statutory authority to collect fees in several different situations, but that FAA has no explicit authority to impose fees related to the assignment of slots.  Indeed, the FAA has long sought such explicit authorization from Congress, which Congress has not yet granted.  See, e.g., 71 Fed.Reg. 51362 (Aug. 29, 2006) ( ". . . the FAA currently does not have the statutory authority to assess market-clearing charges for a landing or departure authorization").  It is FAA's efforts to get around the fact that it lacks explicit authority that is at the heart of the matter.

In order to claim authority to collect funds in connection with its assignment of slots, FAA makes two connected arguments.  First, FAA claims that a "slot" is an "intangible" form of property that it may lease pursuant to its "property disposition" power granted to it by Congress under 49 U.S.C. 106(l)(6) and (n) and 40110(a)(2).  Second, since the slot is a property right being leased, it is not an "user fee" or "tax."  Therefore, it is not subject to the Independent Offices Appropriations Act (IOAA), 31 U.S.C. 9701 et seq.  The opposing parties have claimed that the FAA is wrong on both counts.

Next Post:  Analysis of FAA's claims that it possesses a property interest in slots at airports.