Topic: Regulatory Studies

Obama Administration Declares War on Franchisors and Subcontractors

In a series of unilateral moves, the Obama administration has been introducing an entirely new regime of labor law without benefit of legislation, upending decades’ worth of precedent so as to herd as many workers into unions as possible. The newest, yesterday, from the National Labor Relations Board, is also probably the most drastic yet: in a case against waste hauler Browning-Ferris Industries, the Board declared that from now on, franchisors and companies that employ subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies will often be treated as if they were really direct employers of those other firms’ workforces: they will be held liable for alleged labor law violations at the other workplaces, and will be under legal compulsion to bargain with unions deemed to represent their staff. The new test, one of “industrial realities,” will ask whether the remote company has the power, even the potential power, to significantly influence working conditions or wages at the subcontractor or franchisee; a previous test sought to determine whether the remote company exercised “ ‘direct and immediate impact’ on the worker’s terms and conditions — say, if that second company is involved in hiring and determining pay levels.”

This is a really big deal; as our friend Iain Murray puts it at CEI, it has the potential to “set back the clock 40 years, to an era of corporate giants when few people had the option of being their own bosses while pursuing innovative employment arrangements.”

  • A tech start-up currently contracts out for janitorial, cafeteria, and landscaping services. It will now be at legal risk should its hired contractors be later found to have violated labor law in some way, as by improperly resisting unionization. If it wants to avoid this danger of vicarious liability, it may have to fire the outside firms and directly hire workers of its own.
  • A national fast-food chain currently employs only headquarters staff, with franchisees employing all the staff at local restaurants. Union organizers can now insist that it bargain centrally with local organizers, at risk for alleged infractions by the franchisees. To escape, it can either try to replace its franchise model with company-owned outlets – so that it can directly control compliance – or at least try to exert more control over franchisees, twisting their arms to recognize unions or requiring that an agent of the franchiser be on site at all times to monitor labor law compliance.

Writes management-side labor lawyer Jon Hyman:

If staffing agencies and franchisors are now equal under the National Labor Relations Act with their customers and franchisees, then we will see the end of staffing agencies and franchises as viable business models. Moreover, do not think for a second that this expansion of joint-employer liability will stop at the NLRB. The Department of Labor recently announced that it is exploring a similar expansion of liability for OSHA violations. And the EEOC is similarly exploring the issue for discrimination liability.

And Beth Milito, senior legal counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business, quoted at The Hill: “It will make it much harder for self-employed subcontractors to get jobs.” What will happen to the thriving white-van culture of small skilled contractors that now provides upward mobility to so many tradespeople? Trade it in for a company van, start punching someone’s clock, and just forget about building a business of your own.

What do advocates of these changes intend to accomplish by destroying the economics of business relationships under which millions of Americans are presently employed? For many, the aim is to force much more of the economy into the mold of large-payroll, unionized employers, a system for which the 1950s are often (wrongly) idealized.

One wonders whether many of the smart New Economy people who bought into the Obama administration’s promises really knew what they were buying.

Regulatory Incompetence (and King v. Burwell) Could Save the Nuns

Obamacare imposes a requirement that employers provide insurance that covers “preventive care” for women, but does not specify what that entails. The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) determined that “preventive care” includes all FDA-approved contraceptives, from condoms to the morning-after pill.

While houses of worship were exempted outright from the mandate, other religious orders were not. (And, as we know from the Hobby Lobby case, for-profit employers who object to certain forms of contraceptive don’t have to pay to cover them.) Instead, under an “accommodation” created by HHS and the Departments of Labor and Treasury, an objecting religious organization isn’t required to pay for the offending contraceptives, but they do have to notify HHS, which then modifies their insurance contracts so their insurers cover the objected-to items.

Even though the religious organizations are not paying for the contraceptives, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor—an order of nuns who provide various kinds of social services—still feel complicit in sin and claim that their free exercise of religion has been burdened.

Cato and law professor Josh Blackman (who recently became a Cato adjunct scholar) have filed an amicus brief supporting the Little Sisters’ request that the Supreme Court hear their case. The Little Sisters raise claims under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our brief asks the Court to consider a supplemental question: Whether the Departments have the interpretive authority and “expertise” to resolve this “major question” of profound social, “economic and political significance”—to quote Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion in King v. Burwell (where he said that courts couldn’t simply defer to the IRS on the important question presented there).

Congress gave absolutely no indication that it delegated to federal agencies the authority to decide which religious groups would be exempted and which could have their religious liberty burdened under an accommodation, or for that matter, how agencies were to design any accommodations. To quote another recent case where the Court refused to defer to an administrative agency, UARG v. EPA (2014), here the agencies are “laying claim to an extravagant statutory power” affecting fundamental religious liberty interests—a power that the ACA “is not designed to grant.”

If the Departments lack the interpretive authority to craft accommodations, then Hobby Lobby provides the rule of decision and the Little Sisters must be exempted from the mandate. Accordingly, the Supreme Court should consider this additional question and conclude that the Departments’ regulatory incompetence prevents them from forcing the Little Sisters to be complicit in what they view as sin.

Bloomberg BNA Podcast on Legal Challenges to ObamaCare

In this Bloomberg BNA podcast, Supreme Court correspondent Kimberly Robinson and I discuss King v. BurwellSissel v. HHS (the Origination Clause case), and House of Representatives v. Burwell, (the House GOP’s lawsuit against the Obama administration’s efforts to exceed its powers under the Constitution and the Affordable Care Act).

Keep an eye out for my article on King v. Burwell with Jonathan Adler in the upcoming Cato Supreme Court Review.

Adler and I will be speaking about King at the Cato Institute’s 14th annual Constitution Day symposium on September 17, 2015. Register here.

The Patent Case that Threatens the Internet

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments today in a case about dental retainers that could threaten the free flow of information over the Internet.  The question is whether the U.S. International Trade Commission has the authority to bar the “importation” of digital transmissions.  The case has serious implication for the future of 3D printing, internet service providers’ liability for copyright piracy, and the internet’s global infrastructure. 

The ITC has the power to ban imports to prevent “unfair competition” and has become a popular venue to enforce U.S. patents.   A Cato Policy Analysis from 2012 details how the ITC’s patent enforcement powers are unnecessary, protectionist, and inconsistent with U.S. trade obligations

The case before the appeals court today involves products that are manufactured inside the United States based on schematics generated by a computer in Pakistan.  The production of those schematics is covered by a patent owned by Align Technology, who successfully petitioned the ITC to issue an order barring its competitor ClearCorrect from transmitting the data from Pakistan to the United States.

An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times explained the dangers of allowing the agency to have power over digital transmissions:

The I.T.C. has long had the power to forbid companies from importing physical goods like electronics, books and mechanical equipment that violate the patents, copyrights and trademarks of American businesses. It does so by ordering customs officials to seize items at the border or by issuing cease and desist orders to importers. The commission’s order to ClearCorrect was the first time it had sought to bar the transfer of digital information. If the appeals court upholds this decision, it could set a precedent that would allow businesses to seek to block all kinds of data transmissions.

Of course businesses should be able to protect their patents and copyrights. But there are far better ways to do so. In this case, for example, Align could sue ClearCorrect and seek damages for patent infringement. Or the company could ask a judge to order ClearCorrect to stop selling products made using the information contained in the files.

It is not even clear that the commission has the authority to restrict international data transfers. Congress has given it authority to block the import of “articles,” which for decades has been understood to mean physical goods. In last year’s ruling, a five-member majority of the commission ruled that the word “article” includes data.

Groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America are supporting the commission’s view. They argue that, as trade increasingly becomes digital, the definition of “article” should include data. The Internet Association, which represents companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, is asking the court to reverse the decision.

We already know from leaked documents that the MPAA plans to use the ITC’s potential jurisdiction over data transmissions  as a way to block Americans from accessing foreign websites that host copyrighted movies.

The purpose of the ITC’s patent enforcement power is to make sure that U.S. companies have a remedy against foreign infringers who are otherwise unreachable by a domestic court.  That’s why the ITC’s remedy is a ban on future imports rather than money damages for past infringement like you would get in federal district court.  But the bulk of the ITC’s caseload, including the Align case, involves disputes between parties that can and do sue each other in U.S. courts. 

In today’s global economy, it’s particularly pointless to have a specialized IP court for imports, digital or otherwise.  The fact that an article is imported from outside the United States or a piece of information travels through a foreign computer server has no bearing on whether that product infringes a U.S. patent or copyright. 

Giving the ITC power to bar cross-border data transmissions invites mischievous litigation without serving any legitimate public policy goal.

Politics in Massachusetts Just Got a Bit Freer

Regular readers might recall a Supreme Court brief Cato filed last year in SBA List v. Driehaus, which involved a challenge to an Ohio law that made it a crime to “lie” about a politician during an election. That case predictably resulted in the law being overturned as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Because SBA List reached the Supreme Court on procedural grounds – and the law was only declared unconstitutional by the district court on remand – the ruling didn’t automatically invalidate similar laws across the nation. Over a dozen states still have criminal laws almost identical to Ohio’s, letting thin-skinned politicians haul their critics into court whenever they think politics attacks against them are unfair.

One of these states was Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Cato filed an amicus brief in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to argue that there was no way that the law could withstand any level of First Amendment scrutiny. The SJC agreed. In an opinion released this past Thursday, the court invalidated the law for being “antagonistic to the fundamental right of free speech,” and chilling “the very exchange of ideas that gives meaning to our electoral system.”  

While a victory, the facts of Commonwealth v. Lucas show just how odious and dangerous these law are in practice. The case began with Brian Mannal, a sitting state representative. When he was last up for reelection (he won by 205 votes), Mannal took issue with a series of flyers distributed by his critics.  Instead of engaging in a debate about the underlying issues, Mannal initiated criminal proceedings against the treasurer of the organization that published the flyers. This demonstrates one of the most dangerous aspects of these laws: any politician whose ego has been bruised can file a complaint in order to silence and intimidate opponents. 

Rules versus Discretion: Insights from Behavioral Economics

For half a century now, the “rules versus discretion” debate in monetary economics has focused on the so-called “time inconsistency” problem.  The problem is that, although a discretionary central bank might promise not to allow the inflation rate to rise above zero (or some other ideal value), the fact that an inflation “surprise” can boost employment and output in the short run will tempt it to break its promise.  Realizing this, market participants will anticipate higher inflation.  The long-run result is a higher inflation rate with no improvement in either employment or output.  By limiting the central bankers’ options, a monetary rule solves the time inconsistency problem.

An earlier rules-versus-discretion debate had taken place in the 1920s and 1930s.1  The later one, which was inspired by the stagflation of the 1970s, differed in that it was influenced by the New Classical revolution that was taking place around the same time.  Consequently, the later critics of monetary discretion, including Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott,  Guillermo Calvo, Benn McCallum, Robert Barro and David Gordon, and John Taylor,2 differed from their predecessors by building their arguments on the premise that central bankers were both well (if not quite perfectly) informed and well intentioned.  Discretion, according to them, leads to less than ideal outcomes not because central bankers are ignorant or misguided, but because of misaligned incentives.

White House Cites Cato in Report on Occupational Licensing

Occupational licensing needlessly regulates scores of workers in the United States. Indeed, despite years of criticisms from economists, the percentage of workers required to hold a license has risen substantially in recent years. The Cato Institute has been talking about the problem for years. But some of our readers might be surprised to see the latest critics: A recent White House report critiquing and evaluating  licensing requirements, Occupational Licensing: A Framework for Policymakers. We’re particularly pleased that the report cited both an essay in Cato’s monthly online magazine, Cato Unbound, and one of the entries in Cato’s online forum, “Reviving Economic Growth,” which will soon be published as an ebook.  

The White House report, which was prepared by the Department of the Treasury Office of Economic Policy, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Department of Labor, documented the massive growth of licensing in the last few decades. Over a quarter of U.S. workers now need licenses to do their jobs, and the percent of workers who need state-issued licenses has increased five-fold since the 1950s. The report concluded that this can harm employment opportunities and inflate costs for consumers. It also disproportionately affects certain populations, including immigrants and anyone with a criminal history.

The report cited Mercatus Center scholars Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, who argued against the effectiveness of licensing in “The End of Asymmetric Information” for Cato Unbound. “Yelp, Angie’s List, and Amazon Reviews all make it easy for past buyers to report their observations on seller quality and for future buyers to observe a seller’s accumulated reputation,they wrote. Thus, they said, one of licensing’s supposed benefits, helping consumers identify quality work, is becoming obsolete.

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