As readers of this blog know, the question of guidance v. regulation is one near and dear to my heart. I generally disfavor guidance, because I think it offers none of the protections of the regulatory process and almost none of the flexibility that guidance is supposed to provide. Two issues are of particular concern. First, guidance is not supposed to announce new rules – only clarifying interpretation of existing rules. However, we all know what a slippery slope that can be. Second, notwithstanding the purported flexibility of guidance, how often do regulators on the street – those actually using the guidance, rather than those writing it – treat guidance exactly like regulations and expect the regulated community to follow it to the letter?
The problem was brought to the forefront again recently by the decision in National Mining Association v. Jackson, in which Judge Reggie Walton in the District Court for the District of Columbia stated that EPA’s mountaintop mining guidance likely exceeded EPA’s authority. Although Judge Walton denied plaintiffs’ request for an injunction because they had not demonstrated irreparable harm, he made clear that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits. Addressing the core issues I noted above, he stated that the EPA mountaintop mining guidance
Qualified as final agency action because, despite the representation that it is an interim document, it is nonetheless being applied in a binding manner and has been implemented in its current version even though the EPA continues to receive comments about it. Therefore,… it appears that the EPA is treating the Guidance as binding.
Judge Walton went on to conclude that the various documents at issue constitute “legislative rules because they seemingly have altered the permitting procedures under the Clean Water Act by changing the codified administrative review process.” He also found that the documents exceeded EPA’s authority, because they ignored “EPA’s limited role in the issuance of Section 404 permits.”
Relatively hard on the heels of the National Mining Association decision, Daily Environment Report this week covered efforts by industry groups to prevent EPA from issuing guidance interpreting the Supreme Court’s Rapanos decision regarding the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction over “waters of the United States.” I’m sorry, but does anyone think that such “guidance” would not be treated in practice as having the finality of regulation? If, under such guidance, certain types of situations are considered to be “waters of the United States,” does anyone doubt that such situations will be subject to CWA permitting requirements 100% of the time?
Agencies officials generally make two arguments in favor of guidance. One is simply to ask for recognition of the practical reality that getting formal notice and comment rulemaking accomplished is very difficult and often impractical in the modern world. The second is that guidance provides flexibility. However, if the regulators want the rest of us to recognize the practical realities involved in promulgating regulations, then they must recognize the practical reality that guidance almost always immediately ossifies and that those implementing it treat it as gospel. There is often little in it for the regulated community.
Until Rand Paul succeeds in dismantling the modern administrative state, the debate will continue.