Tag: chevron

SCOTUS Deferred to Executive Agencies. What Happened Next Will Infuriate You!

In the 1996 case Auer v. Robbins, the Supreme Court ruled that where there is any ambiguity or disagreement over what a federal regulation means, courts should defer to the interpretation favored by the agency that issued the regulation. The practical consequence of this decision has been that government agencies have had the power not just to create and enforce their own rules but also to definitively interpret them. Given the mind-boggling number of federal regulations that exist—and the exceptional breadth of behavior that they govern—the importance of this “Auer deference” can’t be overstated.

While handing the powers of all three branches of government to the bureaucracy is problematic in and of itself, a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit further extended the deference courts show to agency rulemakers by declaring that an agency’s interpretation of its own rule is authoritative even if the agency has altered its interpretation dramatically since the regulation came into effect. Under that logic, an agency could spend decades saying that its regulation governing footwear only applied to shoes—and then, without warning or consultation, unilaterally decide to extend the rule to sandals and slippers (despite explicitly saying for years that they were not covered by the regulation).

Such a power to rewrite regulations through after-the-fact “reinterpretation” is incredibly tempting, freeing agencies to change the rules of the game without further legislation or congressional oversight, or even the formalized rulemaking process required by the Administrative Procedure Act.

Peri & Sons, a family-run farm in Nevada (one of America’s largest onion producers), is caught in just such an Kafkaesque morass. In its case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that even though the Department of Labor for over five years interpreted regulations issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act to mean that employers aren’t required to pay employees for the costs of moving for a job (including passport and visa applications), DOL is free to change its interpretation to now require employers to cover those costs.

Cato, along with the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence and the National Federation of Independent Business, filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to hear this case. We argue not just against the Ninth Circuit’s extension of Auer to cases where the agency has reversed its position, but also that Auer itself was incorrectly decided. Granting agencies post-hoc control over their regulations’ textual meaning is an abdication by the courts of their constitutional duty to zealously guard against executive encroachment on the judiciary’s role as interpreters of the law. And we’re not alone in questioning the wisdom of Auer; as recently as 2011, Justice Scalia criticized the ruling as being “contrary to [the] fundamental principles of separation of powers.”

The Supreme Court will be deciding this spring whether to hear Peri & Sons Farms v. Rivera.We urge the Court to take the case and restore a modicum of the Constitution’s separation and balance of powers.

WSJ: Dems Nuked Filibuster to Defeat Halbig v. Sebelius

Wall Street Journal editorial surmises that Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster for non-Supreme Court judicial appointments so they could pack the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit with judges that would block an important ObamaCare case called Halbig v. Sebelius:

Democrats surprised Republicans in November with how quickly they dismantled the filibuster, and we are beginning to see why. Another major challenge to ObamaCare is being heard by a D.C. Circuit district judge, this time concerning whether subsidies can be delivered by the federal exchanges. Then there’s the new IRS proposed rule curtailing the political speech of 501(c)(4) groups. This rule will also probably make its way to the D.C. Circuit, and blocking GOP-leaning groups from politicking is part of the Democratic strategy for holding the Senate in 2014.

Democrats figure they have a better chance to win if they have more nominees on the appeals court—either in a three-judge panel or en banc. The plaintiffs could appeal to the Supreme Court if they lose, but you never know if the Justices will take a case.

Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan H. Adler and I laid the groundwork for Halbig and three other cases challenging President Obama’s attempt to tax Americans without congressional authorization in this law-journal article.

‘The IRS Overstepped Its Bounds and Lacked the Power to Rewrite the Law’

Of course, that is just Reuters paraphrasing me:

Under the new healthcare law, individuals can shop and purchase health insurance through government-created exchanges. If a state refuses to set up its own exchange, the law allows the federal government to set one up instead. Due to a glitch in the original statute, individuals are only eligible for a tax credit if they buy insurance through a state exchange, not a federal one. That allows states to disrupt the system by refusing to set up their own exchanges. To fix this technical problem, the Internal Revenue Service issued a new rule, making the tax credit available for people who purchase insurance on federal exchanges. Conservative watchdogs, including Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, say the IRS overstepped its bounds and lacked the power to rewrite the law. While no lawsuit has been filed yet, “we’re watching the whole exchange issue now,” said Diane Cohen of the Goldwater Institute.

One addition and three corrections.

  1. By spending that money illegally and issuing those illegal tax credits, the IRS is also triggering an illegal tax against employers (i.e., ObamaCare’s employer mandate).
  2. It’s not a “glitch.” It is a deliberate design feature.
  3. When the IRS lacks statutory authority to tax people or spend taxpayer dollars, but does both anyway, that lack of authority is not “technical problem.” It is called “taxation without representation.” And it is a very bad thing.
  4. I am not a conservative.

Journalism and Generality

The media makes it hard for ordinary people to be libertarians. In large part, this is because journalism is in the business of selling panic—panic about terrorism, panic about drugs, panic about food, panic about pornography, panic about our health care system. If it’s not an emergency, it’s not news. To the lazy journalist, everything becomes an emergency—and emergencies always—always—demand state action.

The media makes things hard for the would-be libertarian in other ways, too. Consider this story from today’s Washington Post, about… well, it’s hard to say, actually:

Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Tuesday to save $21 billion over the next decade by eliminating tax breaks for the nation’s five biggest oil companies, a move designed to counter Republican demands to control the soaring national debt without new taxes.

With the proposal, Democrats sought to reframe the debate over debt reduction to include fresh revenue as well as sharp cuts in spending. For the first time, Democratic leaders suggested an equal split between spending cuts and new taxes — “50-50,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

That represents a larger share for taxes than has been proposed by either President Obama or the bipartisan commission he appointed to recommend how to cut the national debt.

So far, the Democratic tax agenda is focused on ending subsidies for big oil companies, a hugely popular proposal involving what Democrats see as a prime example of wasteful giveaways in the tax code. By raising the issue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans either to drop their rigid stance against new taxes or to defend taxpayer subsidies for some of the world’s most profitable corporations, including Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

The proposal came in response to remarks Tuesday by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said raising taxes is “off the table.” A day earlier, he gave a speech demanding more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for GOP support for an increase in the legal limit on government borrowing through the end of next year.

Where am I confused, you ask? On almost everything a libertarian ought to care about. I’ll explain.

One of the key aspects of any good law is generality—that is, equality before the law. As F. A. Hayek put it:

[T]hough government has to administer means which have been put at its disposal (including the services of all those whom it has hired to carry out its instructions), this does not mean that it should similarly administer the efforts of private citizens. What distinguishes a free from an unfree society is that in the former each individual has a recognized private sphere clearly distinct from the public sphere, and the private individual cannot be ordered about but is expected to obey only the rules which are equally applicable to all….

The general, abstract rules, which are laws in the substantive sense, are… essentially long-term measures, referring to yet unnkown cases and containing no references to particular persons, places, or objects. Such laws must always be prospective, never retrospective, in their effect (The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 14, section 2).

Now, with every passing day our government stomps all over this generality requirement again and again, chiefly in the economic sphere. But is it doing so on the front page of today’s Washington Post? That’s a good question.

I can think of lots of ways we might deny a tax break to a certain five oil corporations. Some are decidedly better than others in their generality. Consider the following, ranked from least general to most:

  1. “The corporations known as Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are hereby denied tax break X. All others still qualify, or not, as they did before.”
  2. “Oil corporations with an annual revenue above $198 billion are denied tax break X.”
  3. “We find that tax break X itself is lacking in generality. It is hereby repealed, and the overall corporate tax rate is increased accordingly.”

Which one are they proposing? From the story’s first paragraph, we could easily conclude that it was (1). Many people on the left would be happy with (1), because big corporations are anathema to them, and everything they do is evil, and punishing them—generality be damned—is just great.

But then, it could also be (2), and this measure is somewhat more general, even if ConocoPhillips—the smallest company on the list—just so happens to have an annual revenue of $198.655 billion. As Hayek noted, “[C]lassification in abstract terms can always be carried to the point at which, in fact, the class singled out consists only of particular known persons or even a single individual” (ibid., section 4). Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

And finally, there’s (3), clearly the winner in terms of generality. Is that in fact the proposal being discussed by members of Congress? Or is it still more general than that—something perhaps as described by my colleagues Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren earlier this month?

Last week President Barack Obama responded to rising public anger over soaring gasoline prices by banging the drums for the elimination of various tax breaks enjoyed by the oil and gas industry…

[L]et the record show that President Obama is right… about these tax breaks. They make the economy less — not more — efficient and do nothing to reduce prices at the pump.

Rigging the tax code to make investments in manufacturing artificially more attractive than investments in something else is an enterprise designed to harm non-manufacturers for the benefit of … manufacturers. Conservatives who want government to leave markets alone have no business throwing their political bodies in front of this tax break. If their political rhetoric means anything, they would see the president’s bid and raise him by calling for total repeal of this tax break for everyone, not just for oil and gas companies.

If only we were so lucky! Getting back to the Post, we learn much later in the story—in the fifteenth paragraph —that the congressional proposal “would close several long-standing tax loopholes, yielding roughly $2 billion a year in savings to be applied to lowering the deficit. It would affect only the five largest oil companies, excluding smaller producers.”

This is confusing to the point of deception. Does it really “close” a loophole to take a few entities and exclude them from the prior exclusion from the tax? By my understanding, it makes the law less general, more convoluted and more arbitrary, than it was before. Close the loophole—or just don’t close it, I think a Hayek might say. Don’t make companies play human Tetris to figure out whether they aren’t not un-disincluded.

One day I think people will look back on our era—from roughly the civil rights movement to the present—and marvel. They will be amazed at how, while the law grew much more general regarding many non-economic matters, it became increasingly partial and favoritist when it came to running a business. At times our journalism and even our language seemed blind to this contradictory development, which only encouraged it. Even thinking about the generality of our laws is made difficult when it’s just not a topic on the national media’s radar.

But equality before the law should apply, well, equally. Shouldn’t it?

Private Sector Guts and Growth

The Wall Street Journal has an article today for people who think that we need government to thrust itself into the economy because major projects, like energy and technology projects, are too big or risky for private businesses. The article focuses on Chevron’s offshore oil development:

Chevron is leasing the Clear Leader, which floats in 4,300 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, to drill for oil through nearly five miles of rock. Big Oil never wanted to be here, in 4,300 feet of water far out in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling through nearly five miles of rock…

It is an expensive way to look for oil. Chevron Corp. is paying nearly $500,000 a day to the owner of the Clear Leader, one of the world’s newest and most powerful drilling rigs. The new well off the coast of Louisiana will connect to a huge platform floating nearby, which cost Chevron $650 million to build. The first phase of this oil-exploration project took more than 10 years and cost $2.7 billion – with no guarantee it would pay off….

“This is technology capable of going to the moon,” says Robin West, chairman of consulting firm PFC Energy, involving “extraordinary uncertainty, immense levels of information processing, staggering amounts of capital.” …

“What has enabled us to do that is technology,” says David Rainey, BP’s head of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico. “We have been pushing the limits of seismic-imaging technology and drilling technology.”…

The push into deeper water hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Offshore projects are expensive, time-consuming and prone to failure. Chevron boasts of a 45% exploration overall success rate in recent years, a remarkable run by industry standards, but one that also means the company has spent billions on projects that haven’t panned out.”

Bravo for gutsy and aggressive American capitalism! Chevron is taking huge investment risks, making remarkable technological advances, creating jobs, and finding new energy supplies to keep our homes bright and warm.

Political leaders in Washington should be encouraging such private business activities to pull the nation out of its slump. So rather than trying to hike taxes on multinational corporations and oil companies – as the Obama administration proposed in its budget last year – policymakers ought to be cutting corporate tax rates and making other pro-investment changes in federal tax and regulatory policies.