[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.”You can find other posts at thesymposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]
In a 3-2 July 2021 vote, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rescinded the nuanced statement it had issued in 2015 concerning the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. At the same time, the FTC rejected the applicability of the balancing test set forth in the rule of reason (and with it, several decades of case law, agency guidance, and legal and economic scholarship).
The July 2021 statement not only rejected these long-established guiding principles for Section 5 enforcement but left in its place nothing but regulatory fiat. In the statement the FTC issued Nov. 10, 2022 (again, by a divided 3-1 vote), the agency has now adopted this “just trust us” approach as a permanent operating principle.
The November 2022 statement purports to provide a standard under which the agency will identify unfair methods of competition under Section 5. As Commissioner Christine Wilson explains in her dissent, however, it clearly fails to do so. Rather, it delivers a collection of vaguely described principles and pejorative rhetoric that encompass loosely defined harms to competition, competitors, workers and a catch-all group of “other market participants.”
The methodology for identifying these harms is comparably vague. The agency not only again rejects the rule of reason but asserts the authority to take action against a variety of “non-quantifiable harms,” all of which can be addressed at the most “incipient” stages. Moreover, and perhaps most remarkably, the statement specifically rejects any form of “net efficiencies” or “numerical cost-benefit analysis” to guide its enforcement decisions or provide even a modicum of predictability to the business community.
The November 2022 statement amounts to regulatory fiat on overdrive, presented with a thin veneer of legality derived from a medley of dormant judicial decisions, incomplete characterizations of precedent, and truncated descriptions of legislative history. Under the agency’s dubious understanding of Section 5, Congress in 1914 elected to provide the FTC with the authority to declare any business practice “unfair” subject to no principle other than the agency’s subjective understanding of that term (and, apparently, never to be informed by “numerical cost-benefit analysis”).
Moreover, any enforcement action that targeted a purportedly “unfair” practice would then be adjudicated within the agency and appealable in the first instance to the very same commissioners who authorized the action. This institutional hall of mirrors would establish the FTC as the national “fairness” arbiter subject to virtually no constraining principles under which the exercise of such powers could ever be deemed to have exceeded its scope. The license for abuse is obvious and the departure from due process inherent.
The views reflected in the November 2022 statement would almost certainly lead to a legal dead-end. If the agency takes action under its idiosyncratic understanding of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5, it would elicit a legal challenge that would likely lead to two possible outcomes, both being adverse to the agency.
First, it is likely that a judge would reject the agency’s understanding of Section 5, since it is irreconcilable with a well-developed body of case law requiring that the FTC (just like any other administrative agency) act under principles that provide businesses with, as described by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at least “an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”
Any legally defensible interpretation of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 must take into account not only legislative intent at the time the FTC Act was enacted but more than a century’s worth of case law that courts have developed to govern the actions of administrative powers. Contrary to suggestions made in the November 2022 statement, neither the statute nor the relevant body of case law mandates unqualified deference by courts to the presumed wisdom of expert regulators.
Second, even if a court accepted the agency’s interpretation of the statute (or did so provisionally), there is a strong likelihood that it would then be compelled to strike down Section 5 as an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking powers from the legislative to the executive branch. Given the concern that a majority of the Supreme Court has increasingly expressed over actions by regulatory agencies—including the FTC, specifically, inAMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC(2021)and now again in the pending case, Axon Enterprise Inc. v. FTC—that do not clearly fall within the legislatively specified scope of an agency’s authority (as in the AMG decision and other recent Court decisions concerning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office), this would seem to be a high-probability outcome.
In short: any enforcement action taken under the agency’s newly expanded understanding of Section 5 is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, either as a matter of statutory construction or as a matter of constitutional principle. Given this legal forecast, the November 2022 statement could be viewed as mere theatrics that is unlikely to have a long legal life or much practical impact (although, until judicial intervention, it could impose significant costs on firms that must defend against agency-enforcement actions brought under the unilaterally expanded scope of Section 5).
Even if that were the case, however, the November 2022 statement and, in particular, its expanded understanding of the harms that the agency is purportedly empowered to target, is nonetheless significant because it should leave little doubt concerning the lack of any meaningful commitment by agency leadership to the FTC’s historical mission to preserve market competition. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that agency leadership seeks to deploy the powerful remedies of the FTC Act (and the rest of the antitrust-enforcement apparatus) to displace a market-driven economy governed by the free play of competitive forces with an administered economy in which regulators continuously intervene to reengineer economic outcomes on grounds of fairness to favored constituencies, rather than to preserve the competitive process.
Reengineering Section 5 of the FTC Act as a “shadow” antitrust statute that operates outside the rule of reason (or any other constraining objective principle) provides a strategic detour around the inconvenient evidentiary and other legal obstacles that the agency would struggle to overcome when seeking to achieve these policy objectives under the Sherman and Clayton Acts. This intentionally unstructured and inherently politicized approach to antitrust enforcement threatens not only the institutional preconditions for a market economy but ultimately the rule of law itself.
The acceptance and implementation of due-process standards confer a variety of welfare benefits on society. As Christopher Yoo, Thomas Fetzer, Shan Jiang, and Yong Huang explain, strong procedural due-process protections promote: (1) compliance with basic norms of impartiality; (2) greater accuracy of decisions; (3) stronger economic growth; (4) increased respect for government; (5) better compliance with the law; (6) better control of the bureaucracy; (7) restraints on the influence of special-interest groups; and (8) reduced corruption.
Recognizing these benefits (and consistent with the long Anglo-American tradition of recognizing due-process rights that dates back to Magna Carta), the U.S. government (USG) has long been active in advancing the adoption of due-process principles by competition-law authorities around the world, working particularly through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Competition Network (ICN). More generally, due process may be seen as an aspect of the rule of law, which is as important in antitrust as in other legal areas.
The USG has supported OECD Competition Committee work on due-process safeguards which began in 2010, and which culminated in the OECD ministers’ October 2021 adoption of a “Recommendation on Transparency and Procedural Fairness in Competition Law Enforcement.” This recommendation calls for: (1) competition and predictability in competition-law enforcement; (2) independence, impartiality, and professionalism of competition authorities; (3) non-discrimination, proportionality, and consistency in the treatment of parties subject to scrutiny; (4) timeliness in handling cases; (5) meaningful engagement with parties (including parties’ right to respond and be heard); (6) protection of confidential and privileged information; (7) impartial judicial review of enforcement decisions; and (8) periodic review of policies, rules, procedures, and guidelines, to ensure that they are aligned with the preceding seven principles.
The USG has also worked through the International Competition Network (ICN) to generate support for the acceptance of due-process principles by ICN member competition agencies and their governments. In describing ICN due-process initiatives, James Rill and Jana Seidl have explained that “[t]he current challenge is to determine the extent to which the ICN, as a voluntary organization, can or should establish mechanisms to evaluate implementation of … [due process] norms by its members and even non-members.”
In 2019, the ICN announced creation of a Framework for Competition Agency Procedures (CAP), open to both ICN and non-ICN national and multinational (most prominently, the EU’s Directorate General for Competition) competition agencies. The CAP essentially embodied the principles of a June 2018 U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) framework proposal. A September 2021 CAP Report (footnotes omitted) issued at an ICN steering-group meeting noted that the CAP had 73 members, and summarized the history and goals of the CAP as follows:
The ICN CAP is a non-binding, opt-in framework. It makes use of the ICN infrastructure to maximize visibility and impact while minimizing the administrative burden for participants that operate in different legal regimes and enforcement systems with different resource constraints. The ICN CAP promotes agreement among competition agencies worldwide on fundamental procedural norms. The Multilateral Framework for Procedures project, launched by the US Department of Justice in 2018, was the starting point for what is now the ICN CAP.
The ICN CAP rests on two pillars: the first pillar is a catalogue of fundamental, consensus principles for fair and effective agency procedures that reflect the broad consensus within the global competition community. The principles address: non-discrimination, transparency, notice of investigations, timely resolution, confidentiality protections, conflicts of interest, opportunity to defend, representation, written decisions, and judicial review.
The second pillar of the ICN CAP consists of two processes: the “CAP Cooperation Process,” which facilitates a dialogue between participating agencies, and the “CAP Review Process,” which enhances transparency about the rules governing participants’ investigation and enforcement procedures.
The ICN CAP template is the practical implementation tool for the CAP. Participants each submit CAP templates, outlining how their agencies adhere to each of the CAP principles. The templates allow participants to share and explain important features of their systems, including links and other references to related materials such as legislation, rules, regulations, and guidelines. The CAP templates are a useful resource for agencies to consult when they would like to gain a quick overview of other agencies’ procedures, benchmark with peer agencies, and develop new processes and procedures.
Through the two pillars and the template, the CAP provides a framework for agencies to affirm the importance of the CAP principles, to confer with other jurisdictions, and to illustrate how their regulations and guidelines adhere to those principles.
In short, the overarching goal of the ICN CAP is to give agencies a “nudge” to implement due-process principles by encouraging consultation with peer CAP members and exposing to public view agencies’ actual due-process record. The extent to which agencies will prove willing to strengthen their commitment to due process because of the CAP, or even join the CAP, remains to be seen. (China’s competition agency, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), has not joined the ICN CAP.)
Antitrust, Due Process, and the Rule of Law at the DOJ and the FTC
Now that the ICN CAP and OECD recommendation are in place, it is important that the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as long-time international promoters of due process, lead by example in adhering to all of those multinational instruments’ principles. A failure to do so would, in addition to having negative welfare consequences for affected parties (and U.S. economic welfare), undermine USG international due-process advocacy. Less effective advocacy efforts could, of course, impose additional costs on American businesses operating overseas, by subjecting them to more procedurally defective foreign antitrust prosecutions than otherwise.
With those considerations in mind, let us briefly examine the current status of due-process protections afforded by the FTC and DOJ. Although traditionally robust procedural safeguards remain strong overall, some worrisome developments during the first year of the Biden administration merit highlighting. Those developments implicate classic procedural issues and some broader rule of law concerns. (This commentary does not examine due-process and rule-of-law issues associated with U.S. antitrust enforcement at the state level, a topic that warrants scrutiny as well.)
New FTC leadership has taken several actions that have unfortunate due-process and rule-of-law implications (many of them through highly partisan 3-2 commission votes featuring strong dissents).
Consider the HSR Act, a Congressional compromise that gave enforcers advance notice of deals and parties the benefit of repose. HSR review [at the FTC] now faces death by a thousand cuts. We have hit month nine of a “temporary” and “brief” suspension of early termination. Letters are sent to parties when their waiting periods expire, warning them to close at their own risk. Is the investigation ongoing? Is there a set amount of time the parties should wait? No one knows! The new prior approval policy will flip the burden of proof and capture many deals below statutory thresholds. And sprawling investigations covering non-competition concerns exceed our Clayton Act authority.
These policy changes impose a gratuitous tax on merger activity – anticompetitive and procompetitive alike. There are costs to interfering with the market for corporate control, especially as we attempt to rebound from the pandemic. If new leadership wants the HSR Act rewritten, they should persuade Congress to amend it rather than taking matters into their own hands.
Uncertainty and delay surrounding merger proposals and new merger-review processes that appear to flaunt tension with statutory commands are FTC “innovations” that are in obvious tension with due-process guarantees.
FTC rulemaking initiatives have due-process and rule-of-law problems. As Commissioner Wilson noted (footnotes omitted), “[t]he [FTC] majority changed our rules of practice to limit stakeholder input and consolidate rulemaking power in the chair’s office. In Commissioner [Noah] Phillips’ words, these changes facilitate more rules, but not better ones.” Lack of stakeholder input offends due process. Even more serious, however, is the fact that far-reaching FTC competition rules are being planned (see the December 2021 FTC Statement of Regulatory Priorities). FTC competition rulemaking is likely beyond its statutory authority and would fail a cost-benefit analysis (see here). Moreover, even if competition rules survived, they would offend the rule of law (see here) by “lead[ing] to disparate legal treatment of a firm’s business practices, depending upon whether the FTC or the U.S. Justice Department was the investigating agency.”
The FTC’s July 2021 withdrawal of its 2015 “Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding ‘Unfair Methods of Competition’ [UMC] Under Section 5 of the FTC Act” likewise undercuts the rule of law (see here). The 2015 Statement had tended to increase predictability in enforcement by tying the FTC’s exercise of its UMC authority to well-understood antitrust rule-of-reason principles and the generally accepted consumer welfare standard. By withdrawing the statement (over the dissents of Commissioners Wilson and Phillips) without promulgating a new policy, the FTC majority reduced enforcement guidance and generated greater legal uncertainty. The notion that the FTC may apply the UMC concept in an unbounded fashion lacks legal principle and threatens to chill innovative and welfare-enhancing business conduct.
Finally, the FTC’s abrupt September 2021 withdrawal of its approval of jointly issued 2020 DOJ-FTC Vertical Merger Guidelines (again over a dissent by Commissioners Wilson and Phillips), offends the rule of law in three ways. As Commissioner Wilson explains, it engenders confusion as to FTC policies regarding vertical-merger analysis going forward; it appears to reflect flawed economic thinking regarding vertical integration (which may in turn lead to enforcement error); and it creates a potential tension between DOJ and FTC approaches to vertical acquisitions (the third concern may disappear if and when DOJ and FTC agree to new merger guidelines).
As of now, the Biden administration DOJ has not taken as many actions that implicate rule-of-law and due-process concerns. Two recent initiatives with significant rule-of-law implications, however, deserve mention.
First, on Dec. 6, 2021, DOJ suddenly withdrew a 2019 policy statement on “Licensing Negotiations and Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments.” In so doing, DOJ simultaneously released a new draft policy statement on the same topic, and requested public comments. The timing of the withdrawal was peculiar, since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)—who had joined with DOJ in the 2019 policy statement (which itself had replaced a 2013 policy statement)—did not yet have new Senate-confirmed leadership and were apparently not involved in the withdrawal. What’s more, DOJ originally requested that public comments be filed by the beginning of January, a ridiculously short amount of time for such a complex topic. (It later relented and established an early February deadline.) More serious than these procedural irregularities, however, are two new features of the Draft Policy Statement: (1) its delineation of a suggested private-negotiation framework for patent licensing; and (2) its assertion that standard essential patent (SEP) holders essentially forfeit the right to seek an injunction. These provisions, though not binding, may have a coercive effect on some private negotiators, and they problematically insert the government into matters that are appropriately the province of private businesses and the courts. Such an involvement by government enforcers in private negotiations, which treats one category of patents (SEPs) less favorably than others, raises rule-of-law questions.
Second, in January 2018, DOJ and the FTC jointly issued a “Request for Information on Merger Enforcement” [RIF] that contemplated the issuance of new merger guidelines (see my recent analysis, here). The RIF was chock full of numerous queries to prospective commentators that generally reflected a merger-skeptical tone. This suggests a predisposition to challenge mergers that, if embodied in guidelines language, could discourage some (or perhaps many) non-problematic consolidations from being proposed. New merger guidelines that impliedly were anti-merger would be a departure from previous guidelines, which stated in neutral fashion that they would consider both the anticompetitive risks and procompetitive benefits of mergers being reviewed. A second major concern is that the enforcement agencies might produce long and detailed guidelines containing all or most of the many theories of competitive harm found in the RIF. Overly complex guidelines would not produce any true guidance to private parties, inconsistent with the principle that individuals should be informed what the law is. Such guidelines also would give enforcers greater flexibility to selectively pick and choose theories best suited to block particular mergers. As such, the guidelines might be viewed by judges as justifications for arbitrary, rather than principled, enforcement, at odds with the rule of law.
It is to be hoped that the FTC and DOJ will take into account this international dimension in assessing the merits of antitrust “reforms” now under consideration. New enforcement policies that sow delay and uncertainty undermine the rule of law and are inconsistent with due-process principles. The consumer welfare harm that may flow from such deficient policies may be substantial. The agency missteps identified above should be rectified and new polices that would weaken due-process protections and undermine the rule of law should be avoided.
Gus Hurwitz is Assistant Professor of Law at University of Nebraska College of Law
Administrative law really is a strange beast. My last post explained this a bit, in the context of Chevron. In this post, I want to make this point in another context, explaining how utterly useless a policy statement can be. Our discussion today has focused on what should go into a policy statement – there seems to be general consensus that one is a good idea. But I’m not sure that we have a good understanding of how little certainty a policy statement offers.
Administrative Stare Decisis?
I alluded in my previous post to the absence of stare decisis in the administrative context.This is one of the greatest differences between judicial and administrative rulemaking: agencies are not bound by either prior judicial interpretations of their statutes, or even by their own prior interpretations. These conclusions follow from relatively recent opinions – Brand-X in 2005 and Fox I in 2007 – and have broad implications for the relationship between courts and agencies.
In Brand-X, the Court explained that a “court’s prior judicial construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.” This conclusion follows from a direct application of Chevron: courts are responsible for determining whether a statute is ambiguous; agencies are responsible for determining the (reasonable) meaning of a statute that is ambiguous.
Not only are agencies not bound by a court’s prior interpretations of an ambiguous statute – they’re not even bound by their own prior interpretations!
In Fox I, the Court held that an agency’s own interpretation of an ambiguous statute impose no special obligations should the agency subsequently change its interpretation. It may be necessary to acknowledge the prior policy; and factual findings upon which the new policy is based that contradict findings upon which the prior policy was based may need to be explained. But where a statute may be interpreted in multiple ways – that is, in any case where the statute is ambiguous – Congress, and by extension its agencies, is free to choose between those alternative interpretations. The fact that an agency previously adopted one interpretation does not necessarily render other possible interpretations any less reasonable; the mere fact that one was previously adopted therefore, on its own, cannot act as a bar to subsequent adoption of a competing interpretation.
What Does This Mean for Policy Statements?
In a contentious policy environment – that is, one where the prevailing understanding of an ambiguous law changes with the consensus of a three-Commissioner majority – policy statements are worth next to nothing. Generally, the value of a policy statement is explaining to a court the agency’s rationale for its preferred construction of an ambiguous statute. Absent such an explanation, a court is likely to find that the construction was not sufficiently reasoned to merit deference. That is: a policy statement makes it easier for an agency to assert a given construction of a statute in litigation.
But a policy statement isn’t necessary to make that assertion, or for an agency to receive deference. Absent a policy statement, the agency needs to demonstrate to the court that its interpretation of the statute is sufficiently reasoned (and not merely a strategic interpretation adopted for the purposes of the present litigation).
And, more important, a policy statement in no way prevents an agency from changing its interpretation. Fox I makes clear that an agency is free to change its interpretations of a given statute. Prior interpretations – including prior policy statements – are not a bar to such changes. Prior interpretations also, therefore, offer little assurance to parties subject to any given interpretation.
Are Policy Statements entirely Useless?
Policy statements may not be entirely useless. The likely front on which to challenge an unexpected change agency interpretation of its statute is on Due Process or Notice grounds. The existence of a policy statement may make it easier for a party to argue that a changed interpretation runs afoul of Due Process or Notice requirements. See, e.g., Fox II.
So there is some hope that a policy statement would be useful. But, in the context of Section 5 UMC claims, I’m not sure how much comfort this really affords. Regulatory takings jurisprudence gives agencies broad power to seemingly-contravene Due Process and Notice expectations. This is largely because of the nature of relief available to the FTC: injunctive relief, such as barring certain business practices, even if it results in real economic losses, is likely to survive a regulatory takings challenge, and therefore also a Due Process challenge. Generally, the Due Process and Notice lines of argument are best suited against fines and similar retrospective remedies; they offer little comfort against prospective remedies like injunctions.
I’ll conclude the same way that I did my previous post, with what I believe is the most important takeaway from this post: however we proceed, we must do so with an understanding of both antitrust and administrative law. Administrative law is the unique, beautiful, and scary beast that governs the FTC – those who fail to respect its nuances do so at their own peril.
 Fox v. FCC, 556 U.S. 502, 514–516 (2007) (“The statute makes no distinction  between initial agency action and subsequent agency action undoing or revising that action. … And of course the agency must show that there are good reasons for the new policy. But it need not demonstrate to a court’s satisfaction that the reasons for the new policy are better than the reasons for the old one; it suffices that the new policy is permissible under the statute, that there are good reasons for it, and that the agency believes it to be better, which the conscious change of course adequately indicates.”).
 Id. (“To be sure, the requirement that an agency provide reasoned explanation for its action would ordinarily demand that it display awareness that it is changing position. … This means that the agency need not always provide a more detailed justification than what would suffice for a new policy created on a blank slate. Sometimes it must—when, for example, its new policy rests upon factual findings that contradict those which underlay its prior policy; or when its prior policy has engendered serious reliance interests that must be taken into account. It would be arbitrary or capricious to ignore such matters. In such cases it is not that further justification is demanded by the mere fact of policy change; but that a reasoned explanation is needed for disregarding facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”).