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A White House administration typically announces major new antitrust initiatives in the fall and spring, and this year is no exception. Senior Biden administration officials kicked off the fall season at Fordham Law School (more on that below) by shedding additional light on their plans to expand the accepted scope of antitrust enforcement.

Their aggressive enforcement statements draw headlines, but will the administration’s neo-Brandeisians actually notch enforcement successes? The prospects are cloudy, to say the least.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has lost some cartel cases in court this year (what was the last time that happened?) and, on Sept. 19, a federal judge rejected the DOJ’s attempt to enjoin United Health’s $13.8 billion bid for Change Healthcare. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently lost two merger challenges before its in-house administrative law judge. It now faces a challenge to its administrative-enforcement processes before the U.S. Supreme Court (the Axon case, to be argued in November).

(Incidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission has faced some obstacles itself. Despite its recent Google victory, the Commission has effectively lost two abuse of dominance cases this year—the Intel and Qualcomm matters—before the European General Court.)

So, are the U.S. antitrust agencies chastened? Will they now go back to basics? Far from it. They enthusiastically are announcing plans to charge ahead, asserting theories of antitrust violations that have not been taken seriously for decades, if ever. Whether this turns out to be wise enforcement policy remains to be seen, but color me highly skeptical. Let’s take a quick look at some of the big enforcement-policy ideas that are being floated.

Fordham Law’s Antitrust Conference

Admiral David Farragut’s order “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was key to the Union Navy’s August 1864 victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, a decisive Civil War clash. Perhaps inspired by this display of risk-taking, the heads of the two federal antitrust agencies—DOJ Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Jonathan Kanter and FTC Chair Lina Khan—took a “damn the economics, full speed ahead” attitude in remarks at the Sept. 16 session of Fordham Law School’s 49th Annual Conference on International Antitrust Law and Policy. Special Assistant to the President Tim Wu was also on hand and emphasized the “all of government” approach to competition policy adopted by the Biden administration.

In his remarks, AAG Kanter seemed to be endorsing a “monopoly broth” argument in decrying the current “Whac-a-Mole” approach to monopolization cases. The intent may be to lessen the burden of proof of anticompetitive effects, or to bring together a string of actions taken jointly as evidence of a Section 2 violation. In taking such an approach, however, there is a serious risk that efficiency-seeking actions may be mistaken for exclusionary tactics and incorrectly included in the broth. (Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 2001 Microsoft opinion avoided the monopoly-broth problem by separately discussing specific company actions and weighing them on their individual merits, not as part of a general course of conduct.)

Kanter also recommended going beyond “our horizontal and vertical framework” in merger assessments, despite the fact that vertical mergers (involving complements) are far less likely to be anticompetitive than horizontal mergers (involving substitutes).

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Kanter endorsed the American Innovative and Choice Online Act (AICOA), citing the protection it would afford “would-be competitors” (but what about consumers?). In so doing, the AAG ignored the fact that AICOA would prohibit welfare-enhancing business conduct and could be harmfully construed to ban mere harm to rivals (see, for example, Stanford professor Doug Melamed’s trenchant critique).

Chair Khan’s presentation, which called for a far-reaching “course correction” in U.S. antitrust, was even more bold and alarming. She announced plans for a new FTC Act Section 5 “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) policy statement centered on bringing “standalone” cases not reachable under the antitrust laws. Such cases would not consider any potential efficiencies and would not be subject to the rule of reason. Endorsing that approach amounts to an admission that economic analysis will not play a serious role in future FTC UMC assessments (a posture that likely will cause FTC filings to be viewed skeptically by federal judges).

In noting the imminent release of new joint DOJ-FTC merger guidelines, Khan implied that they would be animated by an anti-merger philosophy. She cited “[l]awmakers’ skepticism of mergers” and congressional rejection “of economic debits and credits” in merger law. Khan thus asserted that prior agency merger guidance had departed from the law. I doubt, however, that many courts will be swayed by this “economics free” anti-merger revisionism.

Tim Wu’s remarks closing the Fordham conference had a “big picture” orientation. In an interview with GW Law’s Bill Kovacic, Wu briefly described the Biden administration’s “whole of government” approach, embodied in President Joe Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy. While the order’s notion of breaking down existing barriers to competition across the American economy is eminently sound, many of those barriers are caused by government restrictions (not business practices) that are not even alluded to in the order.

Moreover, in many respects, the order seeks to reregulate industries, misdiagnosing many phenomena as business abuses that actually represent efficient free-market practices (as explained by Howard Beales and Mark Jamison in a Sept. 12 Mercatus Center webinar that I moderated). In reality, the order may prove to be on net harmful, rather than beneficial, to competition.

Conclusion

What is one to make of the enforcement officials’ bold interventionist screeds? What seems to be missing in their presentations is a dose of humility and pragmatism, as well as appreciation for consumer welfare (scarcely mentioned in the agency heads’ presentations). It is beyond strange to see agencies that are having problems winning cases under conventional legal theories floating novel far-reaching initiatives that lack a sound economics foundation.

It is also amazing to observe the downplaying of consumer welfare by agency heads, given that, since 1979 (in Reiter v. Sonotone), the U.S. Supreme Court has described antitrust as a “consumer welfare prescription.” Unless there is fundamental change in the makeup of the federal judiciary (and, in particular, the Supreme Court) in the very near future, the new unconventional theories are likely to fail—and fail badly—when tested in court. 

Bringing new sorts of cases to test enforcement boundaries is, of course, an entirely defensible role for U.S. antitrust leadership. But can the same thing be said for bringing “non-boundary” cases based on theories that would have been deemed far beyond the pale by both Republican and Democratic officials just a few years ago? Buckle up: it looks as if we are going to find out. 

[This post is an entry in Truth on the Market’s FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Aug. 22 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security (ANPRM) is breathtaking in its scope. For an overview summary, see this Aug. 11 FTC press release.

In their dissenting statements opposing ANPRM’s release, Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson expertly lay bare the notice’s serious deficiencies. Phillips’ dissent stresses that the ANPRM illegitimately arrogates to the FTC legislative power that properly belongs to Congress:

[The [A]NPRM] recast[s] the Commission as a legislature, with virtually limitless rulemaking authority where personal data are concerned. It contemplates banning or regulating conduct the Commission has never once identified as unfair or deceptive. At the same time, the ANPR virtually ignores the privacy and security concerns that have animated our [FTC] enforcement regime for decades. … [As such, the ANPRM] is the first step in a plan to go beyond the Commission’s remit and outside its experience to issue rules that fundamentally alter the internet economy without a clear congressional mandate. That’s not “democratizing” the FTC or using all “the tools in the FTC’s toolbox.” It’s a naked power grab.

Wilson’s complementary dissent critically notes that the 2021 changes to FTC rules of practice governing consumer-protection rulemaking decrease opportunities for public input and vest significant authority solely with the FTC chair. She also echoed Phillips’ overarching concern with FTC overreach (footnote citations omitted):

Many practices discussed in this ANPRM are presented as clearly deceptive or unfair despite the fact that they stretch far beyond practices with which we are familiar, given our extensive law enforcement experience. Indeed, the ANPRM wanders far afield of areas for which we have clear evidence of a widespread pattern of unfair or deceptive practices. … [R]egulatory and enforcement overreach increasingly has drawn sharp criticism from courts. Recent Supreme Court decisions indicate FTC rulemaking overreach likely will not fare well when subjected to judicial review.

Phillips and Wilson’s warnings are fully warranted. The ANPRM contemplates a possible Magnuson-Moss rulemaking pursuant to Section 18 of the FTC Act,[1] which authorizes the commission to promulgate rules dealing with “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” The questions that the ANPRM highlights center primarily on concerns of unfairness.[2] Any unfairness-related rulemaking provisions eventually adopted by the commission will have to satisfy a strict statutory cost-benefit test that defines “unfair” acts, found in Section 5(n) of the FTC Act. As explained below, the FTC will be hard-pressed to justify addressing most of the ANPRM’s concerns in Section 5(n) cost-benefit terms.

Discussion

The requirements imposed by Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis

Section 5(n) codifies the meaning of unfair practices, and thereby constrains the FTC’s application of rulemakings covering such practices. Section 5(n) states:

The Commission shall have no authority … to declare unlawful an act or practice on the grounds that such an act or practice is unfair unless the act or practice causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. In determining whether an act or practice is unfair, the Commission may consider established public policies as evidence to be considered with all other evidence. Such public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for such determination.

In other words, a practice may be condemned as unfair only if it causes or is likely to cause “(1) substantial injury to consumers (2) which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (3) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.”

This is a demanding standard. (For scholarly analyses of the standard’s legal and economic implications authored by former top FTC officials, see here, here, and here.)

First, the FTC must demonstrate that a practice imposes a great deal of harm on consumers, which they could not readily have avoided. This requires detailed analysis of the actual effects of a particular practice, not mere theoretical musings about possible harms that may (or may not) flow from such practice. Actual effects analysis, of course, must be based on empiricism: consideration of hard facts.

Second, assuming that this formidable hurdle is overcome, the FTC must then acknowledge and weigh countervailing welfare benefits that might flow from such a practice. In addition to direct consumer-welfare benefits, other benefits include “benefits to competition.” Those may include business efficiencies that reduce a firm’s costs, because such efficiencies are a driver of vigorous competition and, thus, of long-term consumer welfare. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has explained (see OECD Background Note on Efficiencies, 2012, at 14), dynamic and transactional business efficiencies are particularly important in driving welfare enhancement.

In sum, under Section 5(n), the FTC must show actual, fact-based, substantial harm to consumers that they could not have escaped, acting reasonably. The commission must also demonstrate that such harm is not outweighed by consumer and (procompetitive) business-efficiency benefits. What’s more, Section 5(n) makes clear that the FTC cannot “pull a rabbit out of a hat” and interject other “public policy” considerations as key factors in the rulemaking  calculus (“[s]uch [other] public policy considerations may not serve as a primary basis for … [a] determination [of unfairness]”).

It ineluctably follows as a matter of law that a Section 18 FTC rulemaking sounding in unfairness must be based on hard empirical cost-benefit assessments, which require data grubbing and detailed evidence-based economic analysis. Mere anecdotal stories of theoretical harm to some consumers that is alleged to have resulted from a practice in certain instances will not suffice.

As such, if an unfairness-based FTC rulemaking fails to adhere to the cost-benefit framework of Section 5(n), it inevitably will be struck down by the courts as beyond the FTC’s statutory authority. This conclusion is buttressed by the tenor of the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in AMG Capital v. FTC, which rejected the FTC’s claim that its statutory injunctive authority included the ability to obtain monetary relief for harmed consumers (see my discussion of this case here).

The ANPRM and Section 5(n)

Regrettably, the tone of the questions posed in the ANPRM indicates a lack of consideration for the constraints imposed by Section 5(n). Accordingly, any future rulemaking that sought to establish “remedies” for many of the theorized abuses found in the ANPRM would stand very little chance of being upheld in litigation.

The Aug. 11 FTC press release cited previously addresses several broad topical sources of harms: harms to consumers; harms to children; regulations; automated systems; discrimination; consumer consent; notice, transparency, and disclosure; remedies; and obsolescence. These categories are chock full of questions that imply the FTC may consider restrictions on business conduct that go far beyond the scope of the commission’s authority under Section 5(n). (The questions are notably silent about the potential consumer benefits and procompetitive efficiencies that may arise from the business practices called here into question.)

A few of the many questions set forth under just four of these topical listings (harms to consumers, harms to children, regulations, and discrimination) are highlighted below, to provide a flavor of the statutory overreach that categorizes all aspects of the ANPRM. Many other examples could be cited. (Phillips’ dissenting statement provides a cogent and critical evaluation of ANPRM questions that embody such overreach.) Furthermore, although there is a short discussion of “costs and benefits” in the ANPRM press release, it is wholly inadequate to the task.

Under the category “harms to consumers,” the ANPRM press release focuses on harm from “lax data security or surveillance practices.” It asks whether FTC enforcement has “adequately addressed indirect pecuniary harms, including potential physical harms, psychological harms, reputational injuries, and unwanted intrusions.” The press release suggests that a rule might consider addressing harms to “different kinds of consumers (e.g., young people, workers, franchisees, small businesses, women, victims of stalking or domestic violence, racial minorities, the elderly) in different sectors (e.g., health, finance, employment) or in different segments or ‘stacks’ of the internet economy.”

These laundry lists invite, at best, anecdotal public responses alleging examples of perceived “harm” falling into the specified categories. Little or no light is likely to be shed on the measurement of such harm, nor on the potential beneficial effects to some consumers from the practices complained of (for example, better targeted ads benefiting certain consumers). As such, a sound Section 5(n) assessment would be infeasible.

Under “harms to children,” the press release suggests possibly extending the limitations of the FTC-administered Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to older teenagers, thereby in effect rewriting COPPA and usurping the role of Congress (a clear statutory overreach). The press release also asks “[s]hould new rules set out clear limits on personalized advertising to children and teenagers irrespective of parental consent?” It is hard (if not impossible) to understand how this form of overreach, which would displace the supervisory rights of parents (thereby imposing impossible-to-measure harms on them), could be shoe-horned into a defensible Section 5(n) cost-benefit assessment.

Under “regulations,” the press release asks whether “new rules [should] require businesses to implement administrative, technical, and physical data security measures, including encryption techniques, to protect against risks to the security, confidentiality, or integrity of covered data?” Such new regulatory strictures (whose benefits to some consumers appear speculative) would interfere significantly in internal business processes. Specifically, they could substantially diminish the efficiency of business-security measures, diminish business incentives to innovate (for example, in encryption), and reduce dynamic competition among businesses.

Consumers also would be harmed by a related slowdown in innovation. Those costs undoubtedly would be high but hard, if not impossible, to measure. The FTC also asks whether a rule should limit “companies’ collection, use, and retention of consumer data.” This requirement, which would seemingly bypass consumers’ decisions to make their data available, would interfere with companies’ ability to use such data to improve business offerings and thereby enhance consumers’ experiences. Justifying new requirements such as these under Section 5(n) would be well-nigh impossible.

The category “discrimination” is especially problematic. In addressing “algorithmic discrimination,” the ANPRM press release asks whether the FTC should “consider new trade regulation rules that bar or somehow limit the deployment of any system that produces discrimination, irrespective of the data or processes on which those outcomes are based.” In addition, the press release asks “if the Commission [should] consider harms to other underserved groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination (e.g., unhoused people or residents of rural communities)?”

The FTC cites no statutory warrant for the authority to combat such forms of “discrimination.” It is not a civil-rights agency. It clearly is not authorized to issue anti-discrimination rules dealing with “groups that current law does not recognize as protected from discrimination.” Any such rules, if issued, would be summarily struck down in no uncertain terms by the judiciary, even without regard to Section 5(n).

In addition, given the fact that “economic discrimination” often is efficient (and procompetitive) and may be beneficial to consumer welfare (see, for example, here), more limited economic anti-discrimination rules almost certainly would not pass muster under the Section 5(n) cost-benefit framework.     

Finally, while the ANPRM press release does contain a very short section entitled “costs and benefits,” that section lacks any specific reference to the required Section 5(n) evaluation framework. Phillips’ dissent points out that the ANPRM:

…simply fail[s] to provide the detail necessary for commenters to prepare constructive responses” on cost-benefit analysis. He stresses that the broad nature of requests for commenters’ view on costs and benefits renders the inquiry “not conducive to stakeholders submitting data and analysis that can be compared and considered in the context of a specific rule. … Without specific questions about [the costs and benefits of] business practices and potential regulations, the Commission cannot hope for tailored responses providing a full picture of particular practices.

In other words, the ANPRM does not provide the guidance needed to prompt the sorts of responses that might assist the FTC in carrying out an adequate Section 5(n) cost-benefit analysis.

Conclusion

The FTC would face almost certain defeat in court if it promulgated a broad rule addressing many of the perceived unfairness-based “ills” alluded to in the ANPRM. Moreover, although its requirements would (I believe) not come into effect, such a rule nevertheless would impose major economic costs on society.

Prior to final judicial resolution of its status, the rule would disincentivize businesses from engaging in a variety of data-related practices that enhance business efficiency and benefit many consumers. Furthermore, the FTC resources devoted to developing and defending the rule would not be applied to alternative welfare-enhancing FTC activities—a substantial opportunity cost.

The FTC should take heed of these realities and opt not to carry out a rulemaking based on the ANPRM. It should instead devote its scarce consumer protection resources to prosecuting hard core consumer fraud and deception—and, perhaps, to launching empirical studies into the economic-welfare effects of data security and commercial surveillance practices. Such studies, if carried out, should focus on dispassionate economic analysis and avoid policy preconceptions. (For example, studies involving digital platforms should take note of the existing economic literature, such as a paper indicating that digital platforms have generated enormous consumer-welfare benefits not accounted for in gross domestic product.)

One can only hope that a majority of FTC commissioners will apply common sense and realize that far-flung rulemaking exercises lacking in statutory support are bad for the rule of law, bad for the commission’s reputation, bad for the economy, and bad for American consumers.


[1] The FTC states specifically that it “is issuing this ANPR[M] pursuant to Section 18 of the Federal Trade Commission Act”.

[2] Deceptive practices that might be addressed in a Section 18 trade regulation rule would be subject to the “FTC Policy Statement on Deception,” which states that “the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.” A court reviewing an FTC Section 18 rule focused on “deceptive acts or practices” undoubtedly would consult this Statement, although it is not clear, in light of recent jurisprudential trends, that the court would defer to the Statement’s analysis in rendering an opinion. In any event, questions of deception, which focus on acts or practices that mislead consumers, would in all likelihood have little relevance to the evaluation of any rule that might be promulgated in light of the ANPRM.    

[On Monday, June 27, Concurrences hosted a conference on the Rulemaking Authority of the Federal Trade Commission. This conference featured the work of contributors to a new book on the subject edited by Professor Dan Crane. Several of these authors have previously contributed to the Truth on the Market FTC UMC Symposium. We are pleased to be able to share with you excerpts or condensed versions of chapters from this book prepared by authors of of those chapters. Our thanks and compliments to Dan and Concurrences for bringing together an outstanding event and set of contributors and for supporting our sharing them with you here.]

[The post below was authored by former Federal Trade Commission Acting Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen and former FTC Senior Attorney Ben Rossen.]

Introduction

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has long steered the direction of competition law by engaging in case-by-case enforcement of the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair methods of competition (UMC). Recently, some have argued that the FTC’s exclusive reliance on case-by-case adjudication is too long and arduous a route and have urged the commission to take a shortcut by invoking its purported authority to promulgate UMC rules under Section 6(g) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Proponents of UMC rulemaking rely on National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC, a 1973 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that upheld the commission’s authority to issue broad legislative rules under the FTC Act. They argue that the case provides a clear path to UMC rules and that Congress effectively ratified the D.C. Circuit’s decision when it enacted detailed rulemaking procedures governing unfair or deceptive acts or practices (UDAP) in the Magnuson Moss Warranty-Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act of 1975 (Magnuson-Moss).

The premise of this argument is fundamentally incorrect, because modern courts reject the type of permissive statutory analysis applied in National Petroleum Refiners. Moreover, contemporaneous congressional reaction to National Petroleum Refiners was not to embrace broad FTC rulemaking, but rather to put in strong guardrails on FTC UDAP rulemaking. Further, the congressional history of the particular FTC rule at issue—the Octane Ratings Rule—also points in the direction of a lack of broad UMC rulemaking, as Congress eventually adopted the rule solely as a UDAP provision, with heightened restrictions on FTC rulemaking.

Thus, the road to UMC rulemaking, which the agency wisely never tried to travel down in the almost 50 years since National Petroleum Refiners, is essentially a dead end. If the agency tries to go that route, it will be an unfortunate detour from its clear statutory direction to engage in case-by-case enforcement of Section 5.

Broad UMC-Rulemaking Authority Contradicts the History and Evolution of the FTC’s Authority

The FTC Act grants the commission broad authority to investigate unfair methods of competition and unfair and deceptive acts or practices across much of the American economy. The FTC’s administrative adjudicative authority under “Part 3” is central to the FTC’s mission of preserving fair competition and protecting consumers, as reflected by the comprehensive adjudicative framework established in Section 5 of the FTC Act. Section 6, meanwhile, details the commission’s investigative powers to collect confidential business information and conduct industry studies.

The original FTC Act contained only one sentence describing the agency’s ability to make rules, buried inconspicuously among various other provisions. Section 6(g) provided that the FTC would have authority “[f]rom time to time [to] classify corporations and . . . to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this [Act].”[1] Unlike the detailed administrative scheme in Section 5, the FTC Act fails to provide for any sanctions for violations of rules promulgated under Section 6 or to otherwise specify that such rules would carry the force of law. This minimal delegation of power arguably conferred the right to issue procedural but not substantive rules.

Consistent with the understanding that Congress did not authorize substantive rulemaking, the FTC made no attempt to promulgate rules with the force of law for nearly 50 years after it was created, and at various times indicated that it lacked the authority to do so.

In 1962, the agency for the first time began to promulgate consumer-protection trade-regulation rules (TRRs), citing its authority under Section 6(g). Although these early TRRs plainly addressed consumer-protection matters, the agency frequently described violations of the rule as both an unfair method of competition and an unfair or deceptive trade practice. As the commission itself has observed, “[n]early all of the rules that the Commission actually promulgated under Section 6(g) were consumer protection rules.”

In fact, in the more than 100 years of the FTC Act, the agency has only once issued a solely competition rule. In 1967, the commission promulgated the Men and Boys’ Tailored Clothing Rule pursuant to authority under the Clayton Act, which prohibited apparel suppliers from granting discriminatory-advertising allowances that limited small retailers’ ability to compete. However, the rule was never enforced or subject to challenge and was subsequently repealed.

Soon after, the FTC promulgated the octane-ratings rule at issue in National Petroleum Refiners. Proponents of UMC rulemaking, such as former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and current Chair Lina Khan, point to the case as evidence that the commission retains the power to promulgate substantive competition rules, governed only by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and, with respect to interpretations of UMC, entitled to Chevron deference. They argue that UMC rulemaking would provide significant benefits by providing clear notice to market participants about what the law requires, relieving the steep expert costs and prolonged trials common to antitrust adjudications, and fostering a “transparent and participatory process” that would provide meaningful public participation.

With Khan at the helm of the FTC, the agency has already begun to pave the way for new UMC rulemakings. For example, President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on promoting competition called on the commission to promulgate UMC rules to address noncompete clauses and pay-for-delay settlements, among other issues. Further, as one of Khan’s first actions as chair, the commission rescinded—without replacing—its bipartisan Statement of Enforcement Principles Regarding “Unfair Methods of Competition” Under Section 5 of the FTC Act. More recently, the commission’s Statement of Regulatory Priorities stated that the FTC “will consider developing both unfair-methods-of-competition rulemakings as well as rulemakings to define with specificity unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” This foray into UMC rulemaking is likely to take the FTC down a dead-end road.

The Signs Are Clear: National Petroleum Refiners Does Not Comport with Modern Principles of Statutory Interpretation

The FTC’s authority to conduct rulemaking under Section 6(g) has been tested in court only once, in National Petroleum Refiners, where the D.C. Circuit upheld the commission’s authority to promulgate a UDAP and UMC rule requiring the disclosure of octane ratings on gasoline pumps. The court found that Section 6(g) “clearly states that the Commission ‘may’ make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of Section 5” and liberally construed the term ‘rules and regulations’ based on the background and purpose of the FTC Act.” The court’s opinion rested, in part, on pragmatic concerns about the benefits that rulemaking provides to fulfilling the agency’s mission, emphasizing the “invaluable resource-saving flexibility” it provides and extolling the benefits of rulemaking over case-by-case adjudication when developing agency policy.

National Petroleum Refiners reads today like an anachronism. Few modern courts would agree that an ambiguous grant of rulemaking authority should be construed to give agencies the broadest possible powers so that they will have flexibility in determining how to effectuate their statutory mandates. The Supreme Court has never adopted this approach and recent decisions strongly suggest it would decline to do so if presented the opportunity.

The D.C. Circuit’s opinion is in clear tension with the “elephants-in-mouseholes” doctrine first described by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’n, because it largely ignored the significance of the FTC Act’s detailed adjudicative framework. The D.C. Circuit’s reasoning—that Congress buried sweeping legislative-rulemaking authority in a vague, ancillary provision, alongside the ability to “classify corporations”—stands in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s admonition in Whitman.

Modern courts would also look to interpret the structure of the FTC Act to produce a coherent enforcement scheme. For instance, in AMG Capital Management v. FTC, the Supreme Court struck down the FTC’s use of Section 13(b) to obtain equitable monetary relief, in part, because the FTC Act elsewhere imposes specific limitations on the commission’s authority to obtain monetary relief. Unlike National Petroleum Refiners, which lauded the benefits and efficiencies of rulemaking for the agency’s mission, the AMG court reasoned: “Our task here is not to decide whether [the FTC’s] substitution of § 13(b) for the administrative procedure contained in § 5 and the consumer redress available under § 19 is desirable. Rather, it is to answer a more purely legal question” of whether Congress granted authority or not. The same rationale applies to UMC rulemaking.

The unanimous AMG decision was no judicial detour, and the Supreme Court has routinely posted clear road signs that Congress is expected “to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance,” as UMC rulemaking would do. Since 2000, the Court has increasingly applied the “major questions doctrine” to limit the scope of congressional delegation to the administrative state in areas of major political or economic importance. For example, in FDA v. Brown & Williamson, the Supreme Court declined to grant Chevron deference to an FDA rule permitting the agency to regulate nicotine and cigarettes. Crucial to the Court’s analysis was that the FDA’s rule contradicted the agency’s own view of its authority dating back to 1914, while asserting jurisdiction over a significant portion of the American economy. In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, the Court invoked the major questions doctrine to strike down the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse-gas emissions standards as an impermissible interpretation of the Clean Air Act, finding that “EPA’s interpretation is [] unreasonable because it would bring about an enormous and transformative expansion in [the] EPA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.”

Most recently, in West Virginia v. EPAthe Court relied on the major questions doctrine to strike down EPA emissions rules that would have imposed billions of dollars in compliance costs on power plants, concluding that Congress had not provided “clear congressional authorization” for the rules despite explicitly authorizing the agency to set emissions levels for existing plants.  Because broad UMC-rulemaking authority under Section 6(g) is similarly a question of potentially “vast economic and political significance,” and would also represent a significant departure from past agency precedent, the FTC’s efforts to promulgate such rules would likely be met by a flashing red light.

Finally, while National Petroleum Refiners lauded the benefits of rulemaking authority and emphasized its usefulness for carrying out the FTC’s mission, the Supreme Court has since clarified that “[h]owever sensible (or not)” an interpretation may be, “a reviewing court’s task is to apply the text of the statute, not to improve upon it.” Whatever benefits rulemaking authority may confer on the FTC, they cannot justify departure from the text of the FTC Act.

The Road Not Taken: Congress Did Not Ratify UMC-Rulemaking Authority and the FTC Did Not Assert It

Two years after National Petroleum Refiners, Congress enacted the Magnuson-Moss Warranty-Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act of 1975 (Magnuson-Moss). Section 202(a) of Magnuson-Moss amended the FTC Act to add a new Section 18 that, for the first time, gave the FTC express authority to issue UDAP rules, while imposing heightened procedural requirements for such rulemaking. Magnuson-Moss does not expressly address UMC rulemaking. Instead, it says only that Section 18 “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” Section 6(g) currently authorizes the FTC “(except as provided in [section 18] of this title) to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.”

UMC-rulemaking proponents argue Magnuson-Moss effectively ratified National Petroleum Refiners and affirmed the commission’s authority with respect to substantive UMC rules. This revisionist interpretation is incorrect. The savings provision in Section 18(a)(2) that preserves “any authority” (as opposed to “the” authority) of the commission to prescribe UMC rules reflects, at most, an agnostic view on whether the FTC, in fact, possesses such authority. Rather, it suggests that whatever authority may exist for UMC rulemaking was unchanged by Section 18 and that Congress left the question open for the courts to resolve. The FTC itself appears to have recognized this uncertainty, as evidenced by the fact that it has never even attempted to promulgate a UMC rule in the nearly 50 years following the enactment of Magnuson-Moss.

Congressional silence on UMC hardly endorses the commission’s authority and is not likely to persuade an appellate court today. To rely on congressional acquiescence to a judicial interpretation, there must be “overwhelming evidence” that Congress considered and rejected the “precise issue” before the court. Although Congress considered adopting National Petroleum Refiners, it ultimately took no action on the FTC’s UMC-rulemaking authority. Hardly the “overwhelming evidence” required to read National Petroleum Refiners into the law.

The Forgotten Journey: The History of the Octane-Ratings Rule Reinforces the FTC’s Lack of UMC Rulemaking Authority

Those who argue that National Petroleum Refiners is still good law and that Congress silently endorsed UMC rulemaking have shown no interest in how the journey of the octane-ratings rule eventually ended. The FTC’s 1971 octane-ratings rule declared the failure to post octane disclosures on gasoline pumps both an unfair method of competition and an unfair or deceptive practice. But what has remained unexplored in the debate over FTC UMC rulemaking is what happened to the rule after the D.C. Circuit’s decision upheld rulemaking under Section 6(g), and what that tells us about congressional and agency views on UMC authority.

The octane-ratings rule upheld by the D.C. Circuit never took effect and was ultimately replaced when Congress enacted the Petroleum Marketing Practices Act (PMPA), Title II of which addressed octane-disclosure requirements and directed the FTC to issue new rules under the PMPA. But despite previous claims by the FTC that the rule drew on both UDAP and UMC authority, Congress declined to provide any authority beyond UDAP. While it is impossible to say whether Congress concluded that UMC rulemaking was unwise, illegal, or simply unnecessary, the PMPA—passed just two years after Magnuson-Moss—suggests that UMC rulemaking did not survive the enactment of Section 18. A brief summary of the rule’s meandering journey follows.

After the D.C. Circuit remanded National Petroleum Refiners, the district court ordered the FTC to complete an environmental-impact statement. While that analysis was pending, Congress began consideration of the PMPA. After its enactment, the commission understood Congress to have intended the requirements of Title II of the PMPA to replace those of the original octane-ratings rule. The FTC treated the enactment of the PMPA as effectively repealing the rule.

Section 203(a) of the PMPA gave the FTC rulemaking power to enforce compliance with Title II of the PMPA. Testimony in House subcommittee hearings centered on whether the legislation should direct the FTC to enact a TRR on octane ratings under expedited procedures that would be authorized by the legislation, or whether Congress should enact its own statutory requirements. Ultimately, Congress adopted a statutory definition of octane ratings (identical to the method adopted by the FTC in its 1971 rule) and granted the FTC rulemaking authority under the APA to update definitions and prescribe different procedures for determining fuel-octane ratings. Congress also specified that certain rules—such as those requiring manufacturers to display octane requirements on motor vehicles—would have heightened rulemaking procedures, such as rulemaking on the record after a hearing.

Notably, the PMPA specifically provides that violations of the statute, or any rule promulgated under the statute, “shall be an unfair or deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce.” Although Section 203(d)(3) of the PMPA specifically exempts the FTC from the procedural requirements under Section 18, it does not simply revert to Section 6(g) or otherwise leave open a path for UMC rulemaking.

The record makes clear, however, that Congress was aware of FTC’s desire to claim UMC authority in connection with the octane-ratings rule, as FTC officials testified in legislative hearings that UMC authority was necessary to regulate octane ratings. After Magnuson-Moss was enacted, however, neither Congress nor the FTC tried to include UMC rulemaking in the PMPA. In a written statement reflecting the FTC’s views on the PMPA incorporated in the House report, the FTC described its original octane-ratings rule as UDAP only.[2] While not dispositive, the FTC’s apparent abandonment of its request for UMC authority after Magnuson-Moss, and Congress’ decision to limit the PMPA exclusively to UDAP, certainly suggests that UMC did not survive National Petroleum Refiners and that Congress did not endorse FTC UMC rulemaking.

Conclusion

The FTC appears poised to embark on a journey of broad, legislative-style competition rulemaking under Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. This would be a dead end. UMC rulemaking, rather than advancing clarity and certainty about what types of conduct constitute unfair methods of competition, would very likely be viewed by the courts as an illegal left turn. It would also be a detour for the agency from its core mission of case-by-case expert adjudication of the FTC Act—which, given limited agency resources, could result in a years-long escapade that significantly detracts from overall enforcement. The FTC should instead seek to build on the considerable success it has seen in recent years with administrative adjudications, both in terms of winning on appeal and in shaping the development of antitrust law overall by creating citable precedent in key areas.


[1]     H. Rep. No. 95-161, at 45, Appendix II, Federal Trade Commission—Agency Views, Statement of Federal Trade Commission by Christian S. White, Asst. Director for Special Statutes (Feb. 23, 1977).

[2]     38 Stat. 722 § 6(g), codified as amended at 15 U.S.C. §  46(g).


[This post wraps the initial run of Truth on the Market‘s digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

Over the past three weeks, we have shared contributions from more than a dozen antitrust commentators—including academics, practitioners, students, and a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission—discussing the potential for the FTC to develop substantive rules using its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority. This post offers a recap of where we have been so far in this discussion and also discusses what comes next for this symposium and our coverage of these issues.

First, I must express a deep thank you to all who have contributed. Having helped to solicit, review, and edit many of these pieces, it has been a pleasure to engage with and learn from our authors. And second, I am happy to say to everyone: stay tuned! The big news this week is that, after a long wait, Alvaro Bedoya has been confirmed to the commission, likely creating a majority who will support Chair Lina Khan’s agenda. The ideas that we have been discussing as possibilities are likely to be translated into action over the coming weeks and months—and we will be here to continue sharing expert commentary and analysis.

The Symposium Goes On: An Open Call for Contributions

We will continue to run this symposium for the foreseeable future. We will not have daily posts, but we will have regular content: a weekly recap of relevant news, summaries of important FTC activity and new articles and scholarship, and other original content.

In addition, in the spirit of the symposium, we have an open call for contributions: if you would like to submit a piece for publication, please e-mail it to me or Keith Fierro. Submissions should be 1,500-4,000 words and may approach these issues from any perspective. They should be your original work, but may include short-form summaries of longer works published elsewhere, or expanded treatments of shorter publications (e.g., op-eds).

The Symposium So Far

We have covered a lot of ground these past three weeks. Contributors to the symposium have delved deeply into substantive areas where the FTC might try to use its UMC authority; they have engaged with one another over the scope and limits of the FTC’s authority; and they have looked at the FTC’s history, both ancient and recent, to better understand what the FTC may try to do, where it may be successful, and where it may run into a judicial wall.

Over 50,000 words of posts cannot be summarized in a few paragraphs, so I will not try to provide such a summary. The list of contributions to the symposium to date is below and each contribution is worth reading both on its own and in conjunction with others. Instead, I will pull out some themes that have come up across these posts:

Scope of FTC Authority

Unsurprisingly, several authors engaged with the potential scope of FTC UMC-rulemaking authority, with much of the discussion focused on whether the courts are likely to continue to abide the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s 1973 Petroleum Refiners opinion. It is fair to say that “opinions varied.” Discussion included everything from modern trends of judicial interpretation and how they differ from those used in 1973, to close readings of the Magnuson-Moss legislation (adopted in the immediate wake of the Petroleum Refiners opinion), and consideration of how more recent cases such as AMG and the D.C. Circuit’s American Library Association case affect our thinking about Petroleum Refiners.

Likely Judicial Responses

Several contributors also considered how the courts might respond to FTC rulemaking, allowing that the commission may have some level of substantive-rulemaking authority. Several authors invoked the Court’s recent “major questions” jurisprudence. Dick Pierce captures the general sentiment that any broad UMC rulemaking “would be a perfect candidate for application of the major questions doctrine.” But as with any discussion of the “major” questions doctrine, the implicit question is when a question is “major.” There seems to be some comfort with the idea that the FTC can do some rulemaking, assuming that the courts find that it has substantive-rulemaking authority under Section 6(g), but that the Commission faces an uncertain path if it tries to use that authority for more than incremental changes to antitrust law.

Virtues and Vices of Rulemaking

A couple of contributors picked up on themes of the virtues and vices of developing legal norms through rulemaking, as opposed to case-by-case adjudication. Aaron Neilson, for instance, argues that the FTC likely most needs to use rules to make bigger changes to antitrust law than are possible through adjudication, but that such big changes are the ones most likely to face resistance from the courts. And FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips looks at the Court’s move away from per se rules in antitrust cases over the past 50 years, arguing that the same logic that has pushed the courts to embrace a case-by-case approach to antitrust law is likely to create judicial resistance to any effort by the FTC to tack an opposite course.

The Substance of Substantive Rules

Several contributors addressed specific substantive issues that the FTC may seek to address with rules. In some cases, these issues formed the heart of the post; in others, they were used as examples along the way. For instance, Josh Sarnoff evaluated whether the FTC should develop rules around aftermarket parts and to address right-to-repair concerns. Dick Pierce also looked at that issue, along with several others (potential rules to address reverse-payment settlements in the pharmaceutical industry, below-cost pricing, and non-compete clauses involving low-wage workers).

Gaining Perspective

And last, but far from least, several contributors asked questions that help to put any thinking about the FTC into perspective. Jonathan Barnett, for instance, looks at the changes the FTC has made over the past year to its public statements of mission and priorities, alongside its potential rulemaking activity, to discuss the commission’s changing thinking about free markets. Ramsi Woodcock juxtaposes the FTC, the statutory framing of its regulatory authority, with the FOMC and its statutory power to directly affect the value of the dollar. And Bill MacLeod takes us back to 1935 and the National Industrial Recovery Act, reflecting on how the history of rules of “fair competition” might inform our thinking about the FTC’s authority today.

That’s a lot of ground to have covered in three weeks. Of course, the FTC will keep moving, and the ground will keep shifting. We look forward to your continued engagement with Truth on the Market and the authors who have contributed to this discussion.

[The tenth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium comes from guest contributor Kacyn H. Fujii, a 2022 J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. Kacyn’s entry comes via Truth on the Market‘s “New Voices” competition, open to untenured or aspiring academics (including students and fellows). You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to “curtail the unfair use of noncompete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” This executive order raises two questions. First, does the FTC have the authority to issue such a rule? And second, is FTC rulemaking a better solution than adjudication to solve the widespread use of noncompetes? This post contends that the FTC possesses rulemaking authority and that FTC rulemaking is a better solution than adjudication for the problem of noncompete use, especially for low-wage workers.

FTC’s Rulemaking Authority

In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC held that the Federal Trade Commission Act permitted the FTC to promulgate rules under its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority. Specifically, it interpreted Section 6(g), which gives the FTC the authority “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions in this subchapter,” to allow rulemaking to carry out the FTC’s Section 5 authority. In his remarks at the 2020 FTC workshop on noncompetes, Richard Pierce of George Washington University School of Law argued that no court today would follow National Petroleum’s reasoning, even going so far as to call its logic “preposterous.” BYU Law’s Aaron Nielson agreed that some of National Petroleum’s reasoning was outdated but conceded that its judgment might have been correct. Meanwhile, FTC Chair Lina Khan and former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra have spoken in favor of the FTC’s competition-rulemaking authority, both from a legal and policy perspective.

National Petroleum’s focus on text is consistent with the approaches that courts today take. The court first addressed appellees’ argument that the FTC may carry out Section 5 only through adjudication, because adjudication was the only form of implementation explicitly mentioned in Section 5. The D.C. Circuit noted that, although Section 5(b) granted the FTC adjudicative authority, nothing in the text limited the FTC only to adjudication as a means to implement Section 5’s substantive protections. It dismissed the appellee’s argument that expressio unius meant that adjudication was the only mechanism the agency had available to implement Section 5. The D.C. Circuit also rejected the district court’s interpretation of the legislative history, because it was too ambiguous to find Congress’s “specific intent.” Similar to the approach courts take today, National Petroleum gave the text primacy over legislative history, putting significant weight on the fact that the language of Sections 5 and 6(g) is broad.

It is true that, as Nielson notes, courts today would not so readily dismiss employing canons like expressio unius. But courts today would not necessarily employ expressio unius either. The language of Section 6(g) authorizing FTC use of rulemaking is clear and broad, expressly including Section 5 among the sections the FTC may implement through rulemaking, so Congress may have not thought it necessary to explicitly mention rulemaking in Section 5. Given how clear the language is, it also does not seem so farfetched that a court today would decide to not apply the expressio unius canon to imply an exception to the language. As the Court has commented in rejecting the expressio unius canon’s implications, “the force of any negative implication [from this canon] depends on context,” and can be negated by indications that an enactment was “not meant to signal any exclusion.”

Others argue that National Petroleum’s interpretation of Sections 5 and 6(g) would not hold up in light of newer interpretive moves deployed by courts. For example, former FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen and former Assistant Attorney General James Rill contend that the FTC should not have broad competition-rulemaking authority because of the “elephants-in-mouseholes” doctrine articulated in Whitman v. American Trucking. They invoke AMG Capital Management v. FTC as evidence that the Court is wary about “allow[ing] a small statutory tail to wag a very large dog.” The Court in AMG considered whether Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which expressly authorized the FTC to seek injunctive relief from the federal courts, also permitted the agency to seek monetary damages. The Court concluded that the FTC could not seek monetary damages from courts. Permitting this would allow the FTC to bypass its administrative process altogether, thus contravening Congress’ goals by failing to “produce[] a coherent enforcement scheme.” However, Sections 5 and 6(g) are distinguishable from the statutory provision at issue in AMG. Unlike Section 13(b), which did not explicitly grant the FTC authority to seek monetary damages, Section 6(g) does explicitly give the FTC rulemaking authority to carry out the other provisions of the Act with no limitations on this broad language.  Meanwhile, there is no “coherent enforcement scheme” that would be served by limiting Section 6 only to methods to carry out Section 5’s adjudicative authority. Rulemaking authority does not detract from the FTC’s ability to adjudicate.

One could also argue that, according to the “specific over the general” canon, adjudication should be the FTC’s primary implementation method: Section 5(b), which is very specific in its description of the FTC’s adjudicative authority, should govern over Section 6(g), which discusses rulemaking only in general language. But there is no inherent conflict between the general and specific provisions here. Even if adjudication was intended as the primary implementation method, Section 5 does not explicitly preclude rulemaking as an option in its text. There may be valid functional reasons that Congress would want an agency that acts primarily through adjudication to also have substantive rulemaking authority. National Petroleum itself observed that “the evolution of bright-line rules [through adjudication] is often a slow process” and that “legislative-type” rulemaking procedures allow the agency to consider “broad range of data and argument from all those potentially affected.” In addition, as Emily Bremer of Notre Dame Law School observes, Congress consistently sets more specific guidelines for adjudication to meet individual agency and program needs, resulting in “extraordinary procedural diversity” across adjudication regimes. The greater level of specificity with respect to adjudication in Section 5(b) of the FTC Act may simply reflect Congress’ perceived need to delineate adjudication regimes in further detail than it does for rulemaking.

In addition, some who are doubtful about the FTC’s rulemaking authority have cited legislative context. Specifically, Ohlhausen and Rill argue that the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act demonstrates Congress’ concern with the FTC having expansive rulemaking power. Thus, broad competition-rulemaking authority would be inconsistent with the approach Congress took in Magnuson-Moss. However, the passage of Magnuson-Moss also implies that Congress thought the FTC had existing rulemaking power that Congress could limit—thus validating National Petroleum’s overall holding that the FTC did have rulemaking authority. In addition, Congress could have also extended Magnuson-Moss’s limits on rulemakings to competition-rulemaking authority but decided to apply it only to the FTC’s consumer-protection authority. This interpretation is supported by the text as well. The Magnuson-Moss provision expressly states that its changes “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” Congress specifically exempted competition rulemaking from Magnuson-Moss’s additional procedural requirements. If anything, this demonstrates that Congress did not want to interfere with the FTC’s competition authority.

The history of the FTC Act also supports that Congress would not have wanted to create an expert agency limited only to adjudicative authority. The FTC Act was passed during a time of unprecedented business growth, in spite of the passage of the Sherman Act in 1890. More specifically, Congress enacted the FTC Act in response to Standard Oil. Standard Oil established rule-of-reason analysis that some decried as a judicial “power grab.” Even though members of Congress disagreed about the proper scope of the FTC’s authority, all of the proposed plans for the FTC reflected Congress’ deep objections to the existing common law approach to antitrust enforcement. Congress was concerned that the existing approach was “yielding a body of law that was inconsistent, unpredictable, and unmoored from congressional intent.” Its solution was to create the FTC. The legislative context supports interpreting the statute to give the FTC all of the tools—including rulemaking—to respond effectively to nascent antitrust threats.

Finally, the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication does not mean that it lacks the authority to promulgate rules. Assuming the relevance of historical practice—an assumption AMG cast doubt upon when it spurned the FTC’s longstanding interpretation of the FTC Act—there are reasons that an agency may choose adjudication over rulemaking that have nothing to do with its views of its statutory authority. The FTC’s preference for adjudication may simply have reflected the policy-focused views of its leadership. For example, James Miller, who chaired the FTC from 1981 to 1985, had “fundamental objections to marketplace regulation through rulemaking” because he thought Congress would exert too much pressure on rulemaking efforts. He attempted to thwart ongoing rulemaking efforts and instead vowed to take an “aggressive” approach to enforcement through adjudication. But this does not mean he thought the FTC lacked the authority to promulgate rules at all. Over the past several decades, the courts and federal antitrust enforcers have taken a non-interventionist or laissez-faire approach to enforcement. The FTC’s history of not relying on rulemaking may simply be indicators of the agency’s policy preferences and not its views of its authority.

In short, National Petroleum’s interpretive moves are sound and its conclusion that the FTC possesses UMC-rulemaking authority should stand the test of time. 

Benefits of FTC Rulemaking for Curbing Non-Compete Use

President Biden’s executive order also raised the question of whether FTC rulemaking is the right tool to address the problem of liberal noncompete use. This post argues that FTC rulemaking would have tangible benefits over adjudication, especially for noncompetes that bind low-wage workers.

The Problem with Noncompetes

Noncompete clauses, which restrict where an employee may work after they leave their employer, have been used widely even in contexts divorced from the justifications for noncompetes. Typical justifications for noncompetes include protecting trade secrets and goodwill, increasing employers’ incentives to invest in training, and improving employers’ leverage in negotiations with employees. Despite these justifications, noncompetes are used for workers who have no access to trade secrets or customer lists. According to a survey conducted in 2014, 13.3% of workers that made $40,000 per-year or less were subject to a noncompete, and 33% of those workers reported being subject to a noncompete at some point in the past. Noncompete use reduces worker mobility, even for those workers not themselves bound by noncompetes. It also results in lower wages for those bound by noncompetes. Interestingly, these effects on worker mobility and wages are present even in states where noncompetes are unenforceable.

Although noncompetes are typically governed on the state level, the magnitude of noncompete use could pose an antitrust problem. Noncompetes help employers maintain “high levels of market concentration,” which “reduce[s] competition rather than spur[ring] innovation.” However, it can be very difficult for private parties and state enforcers to challenge noncompete use under antitrust law. One employer’s use of noncompetes is unlikely to have an appreciable difference on the labor market. The harm to labor markets is only detectable in aggregate, making it virtually impossible to succeed on an antitrust challenge against an employer’s use of noncompetes. Indeed, University of Chicago Law’s Eric Posner has observed that, as of 2020, there were “a grand total of zero cases in which an employee noncompete was successfully challenged under the antitrust laws.” According to Posner, courts either claim that noncompetes involve “de minimis” effects on competition or do not create “public” injuries for antitrust law to address.

And while there have been a handful of settlements between state attorneys general and companies that use noncompetes—like the settlement between then-New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood and WeWork in 2018—these settlements capture only the most egregious uses of noncompetes. There are likely many other companies who use noncompetes in anticompetitive ways, but they do not operate at such scale as to warrant an investigation. State attorneys general have resource constraints that limit them to challenge only the most harmful restraints on workers. Even if these cases went to trial, instead of settling, their precedential effect would thus set only the upper bound for what is an anticompetitive use of noncompete agreements.

Further, the FTC’s current approach of relying on adjudication is unlikely to be effective in curbing widespread noncompete use. Scholars have critiqued the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication, saying that it has failed to generate “any meaningful guidance as to what constitutes an unfair method of competition.” Part of this is because antitrust law largely relies on rule-of-reason analysis, which involves a “broad and open-ended inquiry” into the competitive effects of particular conduct. Given the highly fact-specific nature of rule-of-reason analysis, the holding of one case can be difficult to extend to another and thus leads to problems in administrability and efficiency. Even judges “have criticized antitrust standards for being highly difficult to administer.” Reliance on the rule of reason also leads to a lack of predictability, which means that market participants and the public have less notice about what the law is.

In addition, private parties cannot litigate UMC claims under Section 5 of the FTC Act; the agency itself must determine what counts as an unfair method of competition. Perhaps because of resource constraints, the FTC has only brought a “modest number” of cases that “provide an insufficient basis from which to attempt to generate substantive rules defining the Commission’s Section 5 authority.”

Benefits of Rulemaking

FTC rulemaking under its UMC authority would avoid many of the problems of a case-by-case approach. First, rulemaking would provide clarity and efficiency. For example, a rule could declare it illegal for employers to use noncompetes for employees making under the median national income. Such a rule clearly articulates the FTC’s policy and is easy to apply. This demonstrates how rulemaking can be more efficient than adjudication. In order to implement a similar policy through adjudication, the FTC may have to bring many cases covering various industries and defendants that employ low-wage workers, given the nature of rule-of-reason analysis.

Rulemaking is also more participatory than adjudication. Interested parties and the general public can weigh in on proposed rules through the notice-and-comment process. Adjudication involves only those who are party to the suit, leaving “broad swaths of market participants watching from the sidelines, lacking an opportunity to contribute their perspective, their analysis, or their expertise, except through one-off amicus briefs.” However, low-wage workers are unlikely to have the resources required to prepare and submit an amicus brief and may not even be aware of the litigation in the first place. In contrast, it is much easier for low-wage workers or their future employers to participate in the notice-and-comment process, which only requires submitting a comment through an online form. Unions or employee-rights organizations can help to facilitate worker participating in rulemaking as well.

A uniform approach through rulemaking means that more workers will be on notice of the FTC’s policy. Worker education is an important factor in solving the problem. Even in states where noncompetes are not enforceable, employers still use and threaten to enforce noncompetes, which reduces worker mobility. A clear policy articulated by the FTC may help workers to understand their rights, perhaps because a national rule will get more media attention than individual adjudications.

Although it may be true that rulemaking is, in general, less adaptable than adjudication, there may be a category of cases where our understanding is unlikely to change over time. For example, agreements to fix prices are so clearly anticompetitive that they are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. Our understanding of the anticompetitive nature of price fixing is highly unlikely to change over time. 

Noncompetes for low-wage workers should be in this category of cases. This use of noncompetes is divorced from traditional justifications for noncompetes. The nature of the work for low-wage workers—say, for janitors or cashiers—is unlikely to ever require significant employer resources for training or disclosure of customer lists or trade secrets. Given the negative effects that noncompetes can have on mobility and wages, even in states where they are not enforceable, they clearly do more harm than good to the labor market. It is difficult to imagine that market conditions or economic understanding would change this.

Further, even though rulemaking can take time, the FTC’s adjudicative process is not necessarily much better. In 2015, adjudications through the FTC’s administrative process typically took two years. Former FTC Commissioner Philip Elman once observed that case-by-case adjudication “may simply be too slow and cumbersome to produce specific and clear standards adequate to the needs of businessmen, the private bar, and the government agencies.” Even if rulemaking takes longer, it may still be more efficient because of a rule’s ability to apply across the board to different industries and types of workers. It may also be more efficient because it is better able to capture all of the relevant considerations through the notice-and-comment process.

It is true that some states already have a bright-line rule against noncompetes by making noncompetes unenforceable. Even so, there is value in establishing a bright-line rule through rulemaking at a federal level: this provides greater uniformity across states. In addition, rulemaking could have some value if it is used to establish notice requirements—for example, the FTC could promulgate a rule requiring employers to notify employees of the relevant noncompete laws. Notice requirements are one example where case-by-case adjudication would be especially ineffective.

Conclusion

In certain contexts, rulemaking is a better alternative to adjudication. Noncompete use for low-wage workers is one such example. Rulemaking provides more uniformity, notice, and opportunity to participate for low-wage workers than adjudication does. And given that both state noncompete law and federal antitrust law require such fact-specific inquiries, rulemaking is also more efficient than adjudication. Thus, the FTC should use its competition-rulemaking authority to ban noncompete use for low-wage workers instead of relying only on adjudication.

[The ideas in this post from Truth on the Market regular Jonathan M. Barnett of USC Gould School of Law—the eighth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposiumare developed in greater detail in “Regulatory Rents: An Agency-Cost Analysis of the FTC Rulemaking Initiative,” a chapter in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. This is the first of two posts we are publishing today; see also this related post from Aaron Nielsen of BYU Law. You can find other posts at the symposium 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 December 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its statement of regulatory priorities for 2022, which describes its intention to expand the agency’s rulemaking activities to target “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act), in addition to (and in some cases, presumably in place of) the conventional mechanism of case-by-case adjudication. Agency leadership (meaning, the FTC chair and the majority commissioners) largely characterizes the rulemaking initiative as a logistical improvement to enable the agency to more efficiently execute its statutory commitment to preserve competitive markets. Unburdened by the costs and delays inherent to the adjudicative process (which, in the antitrust context, typically requires evidence of actual or likely competitive harm), the agency will be able to take expedited action against UMCs based on rules preemptively set forth by the agency. 

This shift from enforcement by adjudication to enforcement by rulemaking is far from a mechanical adjustment. Rather, it is best understood as part of an initiative to make fundamental changes to the substance and methodology of antitrust enforcement.  Substantively, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to alter the goals of antitrust enforcement so that it promotes what are deemed to be “equitable” market outcomes, rather than preserving the competitive process through which outcomes are determined by market forces. Methodologically, the initiative appears to be part of a broader effort to displace rule-of-reason treatment with the practical equivalent of per se prohibitions in a wide range of putatively “unfair” practices. Both steps would be inconsistent with the agency’s statutory mission to safeguard the competitive process or a meaningful commitment to a market-driven economy and the rule of law.

Abandoning Competitive Markets

Little steps sometimes portend bigger changes. 

In July 2021, FTC leadership removed the following words from the mission description of the agency’s Bureau of Competition: “The Bureau’s work aims to preserve the free market system and assure the unfettered operation of the forces of supply and demand.” This omitted statement had tracked what remains the standard characterization by federal courts and agency guidelines of the core objective of the antitrust laws. Following this characterization, the antitrust laws seek to preserve the “rules of the game” for market competition, while remaining indifferent to the outcomes of such competition in any particular market. It is the competitive process, not the fortunes of particular competitors, that matters.

Other statements by FTC leadership suggest that they seek to abandon this outcome-agnostic perspective. A memo from the FTC chair to staff, distributed in September 2021, states that the agency’s actions “shape the distribution of power and opportunity” and encourages staff “to take a holistic approach to identifying harms, recognizing that antitrust and consumer protection violations harm workers and independent businesses as well as consumers.” In a draft strategic plan distributed by FTC leadership in October 2021, the agency described its mission as promoting “fair competition” for the “benefit of the public.”  In contrast, the agency’s previously released strategic plan had described the agency’s mission as promoting “competition” for the benefit of consumers, consistent with the case law’s commitment to protecting consumer welfare, dating at least to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Reiter v. Sonotone Corp. et al. The change in language suggests that the agency’s objectives encompass a broad range of stakeholders and policies (including distributive objectives) that extends beyond, and could conflict with, its commitment to preserve the integrity of the competitive process.

These little steps are part of a broader package of “big steps” undertaken during 2021 by FTC leadership. 

In July 2021, the agency abandoned decades of federal case law and agency guidelines by rejecting the consumer-welfare standard for purposes of enforcement of Section 5 of the FTC Act against UMCs. Relatedly, FTC leadership asserted in the same statement that Congress had delegated to the agency authority under Section 5 “to determine which practices fell into the category of ‘unfair methods of competition’”. Remarkably, the agency’s claimed ambit of prosecutorial discretion to identify “unfair” practices is apparently only limited by a commitment to exercise such power “responsibly.”

This largely unbounded redefinition of the scope of Section 5 divorces the FTC’s enforcement authority from the concepts and methods as embodied in decades of federal case law and agency guidelines interpreting the Sherman and Clayton Acts. Those concepts and methods are in turn anchored in the consumer-welfare principle, which ensures that regulatory and judicial actions promote the public interest in the competitive process, rather than the private interests of any particular competitor or other policy goals not contemplated by the antitrust laws. Effectively, agency leadership has unilaterally converted Section 5 into an empty vessel into which enforcers may insert a fluid range of business practices that are deemed by fiat to pose a risk to “fair” competition. 

Abandoning the Rule of Reason

In the same statement in which FTC leadership rejected the consumer-welfare principle for purposes of Section 5 enforcement, it rejected the relevance of the rule of reason for these same purposes. In that statement, agency leadership castigated the rule of reason as a standard that “leads to soaring enforcement costs” and asserted that it is incompatible with Section 5 of the FTC Act. In March 2021 remarks delivered to the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter similarly lamented “[t]he effect of cramped case law,” specifically viewing as problematic the fact that “[u]nder current Section 5 jurisprudence, courts have to consider conduct under the ‘rule of reason,’ a fact-intensive investigation into whether the anticompetitive effects of the conduct outweigh the procompetitive justifications.” Hence, it appears that the FTC, in exercising its purported rulemaking powers against UMCs under Section 5, does not intend to undertake the balancing of competitive harms and gains that is the signature element of rule-of-reason analysis. Tellingly, the agency’s draft strategic plan, released in October 2021, omits language that it would execute its enforcement mission “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” (language that had appeared in the previously released strategic plan)—again, suggesting that it plans to take littleaccount of the offsetting competitive gains attributable to a particular business practice.

This change in methodology has two profound and concerning implications. 

First, it means that any “unfair” practice targeted by the agency under Section 5 is effectively subject to a per se prohibition—that is, the agency can prevail merely by identifying that the defendant engaged in a particular practice, rather than having to show competitive harm. Note that this would represent a significant step beyond the per se rule that Sherman Act case law applies to certain cases of horizontal collusion. In those cases, a per se rule has been adopted because economic analysis indicates that these types of practices in general pose such a high risk of net anticompetitive harm that a rule-of-reason inquiry is likely to fail a cost-benefit test almost all of the time. By contrast, there is no indication that FTC leadership plans to confine its rulemaking activities to practices that systematically pose an especially high risk of anticompetitive harm, in part because it is not clear that agency leadership still views harm to the competitive process as being the determinative criterion in antitrust analysis.  

Second, without further clarification from agency leadership, this means that the agency appears to place substantially reduced weight on the possibility of “false positive” error costs. This would be a dramatic departure from the conventional approach to error costs as reflected in federal antitrust case law. Antitrust scholars have long argued, and many courts have adopted the view, that “false positive” costs should be weighted more heavily relative to “false negative” error costs, principally on the ground that, as Judge Richard Posner once put it, “a cartel . . . carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.” To be clear, this weighted approach should still meaningfully assess the false-negative error costs that arise from mistaken failures to intervene. By contrast, the agency’s blanket rejection of the rule of reason in all circumstances for Section 5 purposes raises doubt as to whether it would assign any material weight to false-positive error costs in exercising its purported rulemaking power under Section 5 against UMCs. Consistent with this possibility, the agency’s July 2021 statement—which rejected the rule of reason specifically—adopted the view that Section 5 enforcement should target business practices in their “incipiency,” even absent evidence of a “likely” anticompetitive effect.

While there may be reasonable arguments in favor of an equal weighting of false-positive and false-negative error costs (on the grounds that markets are sometimes slow to correct anticompetitive conduct, as compared to the speed with which courts correct false-positive interventions), it is hard to fathom a reasonable policy argument in favor of placing no material weight on the former cost category. Under conditions of uncertainty, the net economic effect of any particular enforcement action, or failure to take such action, gives rise to a mix of probability-adjusted false-positive and false-negative error costs. Hence, any sound policy framework seeks to minimize the sum of those costs. Moreover, the wholesale rejection of a balancing analysis overlooks extensive scholarship identifying cases in which federal courts, especially during the period prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1977 decision in Continental TV Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., applied per se rules that erroneously targeted business practices that were almost certainly generating net-positive competitive gains. Any such mistaken intervention counterproductively penalizes the efforts and ingenuity of the most efficient firms, which then harms consumers, who are compelled to suffer higher prices, lower quality, or fewer innovations than would otherwise have been the case.

The dismissal of efficiency considerations and false-positive error costs is difficult to reconcile with an economically informed approach that seeks to take enforcement actions only where there is a high likelihood of improving economic welfare based on available evidence. On this point, it is worth quoting Oliver Williamson’s well-known critique of 1960s-era antitrust: “[I]f neither the courts nor the enforcement agencies are sensitive to these [efficiency] considerations, the system fails to meet a basic test of economic rationality. And without this the whole enforcement system lacks defensible standards and becomes suspect.”

Abandoning the Rule of Law

In a liberal democratic system of government, the market relies on the state’s commitment to set forth governing laws with adequate notice and specificity, and then to enforce those laws in a manner that is reasonably amenable to judicial challenge in case of prosecutorial error or malfeasance. Without that commitment, investors are exposed to arbitrary enforcement and would be reluctant to place capital at stake. In light of the agency’s concurrent rejection of the consumer-welfare and rule-of-reason principles, any future attempt by the FTC to exercise its purported Section 5 rulemaking powers against UMCs under what currently appears to be a regime of largely unbounded regulatory discretion is likely to violate these elementary conditions for a rule-of-law jurisdiction. 

Having dismissed decades of learning and precedent embodied in federal case law and agency guidelines, FTC leadership has declined to adopt any substitute guidelines to govern its actions under Section 5 and, instead, has stated (in its July 2021 statement rejecting the consumer-welfare principle) that there are few bounds on its authority to specify and target practices that it deems to be “unfair.” This blunt approach contrasts sharply with the measured approach reflected in existing agency guidelines and federal case law, which seek to delineate reasonably objective standards to govern enforcers’ and courts’ decision making when evaluating the competitive merits of a particular business practice.  

This approach can be observed, even if imperfectly, in the application of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) metric in the merger-review process and the use of “safety zones” (defined principally by reference to market-share thresholds) in the agencies’ Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, Horizontal Merger Guidelines, and Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. This nuanced and evidence-based approach can also be observed in a decision such as California Dental Association v. FTC (1999), which provides a framework for calibrating the intensity of a rule-of-reason inquiry based on a preliminary assessment of the likely net competitive effect of a particular practice. In making these efforts to develop reasonably objective thresholds for triggering closer scrutiny, regulators and courts have sought to reconcile the open-ended language of the offenses described in the antitrust statutes—“restraint of trade” (Sherman Act Section 1) or “monopolization” (Sherman Act Section 2)—with a meaningful commitment to providing the market with adequate notice of the inherently fuzzy boundary between competitive and anti-competitive practices in most cases (and especially, in cases involving single-firm conduct that is most likely to be targeted by the agency under its Section 5 authority). 

It does not appear that agency leadership intends to adopt this calibrated approach in implementing its rulemaking initiative, in light of its largely unbounded understanding of its Section 5 enforcement authority and wholesale rejection of the rule-of-reason methodology. If Section 5 is understood to encompass a broad and fluid set of social goals, including distributive objectives that can conflict with a commitment to the competitive process, then there is no analytical reference point by which markets can reliably assess the likelihood of antitrust liability and plan transactions accordingly. If enforcement under Section 5, including exercise of any purported rulemaking powers, does not require the agency to consider offsetting efficiencies attributable to any particular practice, then a chilling effect on everyday business activity and, more broadly, economic growth can easily ensue. In particular, firms may abstain from practices that may have mostly or even entirely procompetitive effects simply because there is some material likelihood that any such practice will be subject to investigation and enforcement under the agency’s understanding of its Section 5 authority and its adoption of a per se approach for which even strong evidence of predominantly procompetitive effects would be moot.

From Free Markets to Administered Markets

The FTC’s proposed rulemaking initiative, when placed within the context of other fundamental changes in substance and methodology adopted by agency leadership, is not easily reconciled with a market-driven economy in which resources are principally directed by the competitive forces of supply and demand. FTC leadership has reserved for the agency discretion to deem a business practice as “unfair,” while defining fairness by reference to an agglomeration of loosely described policy goals that include—but go beyond, and in some cases may conflict with—the agency’s commitment to preserve market competition. Concurrently, FTC leadership has rejected the rule-of-reason balancing approach and, by implication, may place no material weight on (or even fail to consider entirely) the efficiencies attributable to a particular business practice. 

In the aggregate, any rulemaking activity undertaken within this unstructured framework would make it challenging for firms and investors to assess whether any particular action is likely to trigger agency scrutiny. Faced with this predicament, firms could only substantially reduce exposure to antitrust liability by seeking various forms of preclearance with FTC staff, who would in turn be led to issue supplemental guidance, rules, and regulations to handle the high volume of firm inquiries. Contrary to the advertised advantages of enforcement by rulemaking, this unavoidable cycle of rule interpretation and adjustment would likely increase substantially aggregate transaction and compliance costs as compared to enforcement by adjudication. While enforcement by adjudication occurs only periodically and impacts a limited number of firms, enforcement by rulemaking is a continuous activity that impacts all firms. The ultimate result: the free play of the forces of supply and demand would be replaced by a continuously regulated environment where market outcomes are constantly being reviewed through the administrative process, rather than being worked out through the competitive process.  

This is a state of affairs substantially removed from the “free market system” to which the FTC’s Bureau of Competition had once been committed. Of course, that may be exactly what current agency leadership has in mind.

[Wrapping up the first week of our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium is a post from Truth on the Market’s own Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, director of law & economics programs at the International Center for Law & Economics and an assistant professor of law and co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law program at the University of Nebraska College of Law. You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

Introduction

In 2014, I published a pair of articles—”Administrative Antitrust” and “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust”—that argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent antitrust and administrative-law jurisprudence was pushing antitrust law out of the judicial domain and into the domain of regulatory agencies. The first article focused on the Court’s then-recent antitrust cases, arguing that the Court, which had long since moved away from federal common law, had shown a clear preference that common-law-like antitrust law be handled on a statutory or regulatory basis where possible. The second article evaluated and rejected the FTC’s long-held belief that the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) interpretations of the FTC Act do not receive Chevron deference.

Together, these articles made the case (as a descriptive, not normative, matter) that we were moving towards a period of what I called “administrative antitrust.” From today’s perspective, it surely seems that I was right, with the FTC set to embrace Section 5’s broad ambiguities to redefine modern understandings of antitrust law. Indeed, those articles have been cited by both former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra and current FTC Chair Lina Khan in speeches and other materials that have led up to our current moment.

This essay revisits those articles, in light of the past decade of Supreme Court precedent. It comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent cases that the Court is increasingly viewing the broad deference characteristic of administrative law with what, charitably, can be called skepticism. While I stand by the analysis offered in my previous articles—and, indeed, believe that the Court maintains a preference for administratively defined antitrust law over judicially defined antitrust law—I find it less likely today that the Court would defer to any agency interpretation of antitrust law that represents more than an incremental move away from extant law.

I will approach this discussion in four parts. First, I will offer some reflections on the setting of my prior articles. The piece on Chevron and the FTC, in particular, argued that the FTC had misunderstood how Chevron would apply to its interpretations of the FTC Act because it was beholden to out-of-date understandings of administrative law. I will make the point below that the same thing can be said today. I will then briefly recap the essential elements of the arguments made in both of those prior articles, to the extent needed to evaluate how administrative approaches to antitrust will be viewed by the Court today. The third part of the discussion will then summarize some key elements of administrative law that have changed over roughly the past decade. And, finally, I will bring these elements together to look at the viability of administrative antitrust today, arguing that the FTC’s broad embrace of power anticipated by many is likely to meet an ill fate at the hands of the courts on both antitrust and administrative law grounds.

In reviewing these past articles in light of the past decade’s case law, this essay reaches an important conclusion: for the same reasons that the Court seemed likely in 2013 to embrace an administrative approach to antitrust, today it is likely to view such approaches with great skepticism unless they are undertaken on an incrementalist basis. Others are currently developing arguments that sound primarily in current administrative law: the major questions doctrine and the potential turn away from National Petroleum Refiners. My conclusion is based primarily in the Court’s view that administrative antitrust would prove less indeterminate than judicially defined antitrust law. If the FTC shows that not to be the case, the Court seems likely to close the door on administrative antitrust for reasons sounding in both administrative and antitrust law.

Setting the Stage, Circa 2013

It is useful to start by visiting the stage as it was set when I wrote “Administrative Antitrust” and “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” in 2013. I wrote these articles while doing a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, prior to which I had spent several years working at the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division’s Telecommunications Section. This was a great time to be involved on the telecom side of antitrust, especially for someone with an interest in administrative law, as well. Recent important antitrust cases included Pacific Bell v. linkLine and Verizon v. Trinko and recent important administrative-law cases included Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington v. FCC. Telecommunications law was defining the center of both fields.

I started working on “Administrative Antitrust” first, prompted by what I admit today was an overreading of the Court’s 2011 American Electric Power Co. Inc. v. Connecticut opinion, in which the Court held broadly that a decision by Congress to regulate broadly displaces judicial common law. In Trinko and Credit Suisse, the Court had held something similar: roughly, that regulation displaces antitrust law. Indeed, in linkLine,the Court had stated that regulation is preferable to antitrust, known for its vicissitudes and adherence to the extra-judicial development of economic theory. “Administrative Antitrust” tied these strands together, arguing that antitrust law, long-discussed as one of the few remaining bastions of federal common law, would—and in the Court’s eyes, should—be displaced by regulation.

Antitrust and administrative law also came together, and remain together, in the debates over net neutrality. It was this nexus that gave rise to “Limits of Administrative Antitrust,” which I started in 2013 while working on “Administrative Antitrust”and waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Verizon v. FCC.

Some background on the net-neutrality debate is useful. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to put in place net-neutrality rules by adopting a policy statement on the subject. This approach was rejected by the D.C. Circuit in 2010, on grounds that a mere policy statement lacked the force of law. The FCC then adopted similar rules through a rulemaking process, finding authority to issue those rules in its interpretation of the ambiguous language of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. In January 2014, the D.C. Circuit again rejected the specific rules adopted by the FCC, on grounds that those rules violated the Communications Act’s prohibition on treating internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers. But critically, the court affirmed the FCC’s interpretation of Section 706 as allowing it, in principle, to adopt rules regulating ISPs.

Unsurprisingly, whether the language of Section 706 was either ambiguous or subject to the FCC’s interpretation was a central debate within the regulatory community during 2012 and 2013. The broadest consensus, at least among my peers, was strongly of the view that it was neither: the FCC and industry had long read Section 706 as not giving the FCC authority to regulate ISP conduct and, to the extent that it did confer legislative authority, that authority was expressly deregulatory. I was the lone voice arguing that the D.C. Circuit was likely to find that Chevron applied to Section 706 and that the FCC’s reading was permissible on its own (that is, not taking into account such restrictions as the prohibition on treating non-common carriers as common carriers).

I actually had thought this conclusion quite obvious. The past decade of the Court’s Chevron case law followed a trend of increasing deference. Starting with Mead, then Brand-X, Fox v. FCC, and City of Arlington, the safe money was consistently placed on deference to the agency.

This was the setting in which I started thinking about what became “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust.” If my argument in “Administrative Antitrust”was right—that the courts would push development of antitrust law from the courts to regulatory agencies—this would most clearly happen through the FTC’s Section 5 authority over unfair methods of competition (UMC). But there was longstanding debate about the limits of the FTC’s UMC authority. These debates included whether it was necessarily coterminous with the Sherman Act (so limited by the judicially defined federal common law of antitrust).

And there was discussion about whether the FTC would receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its UMC authority. As with the question of the FCC receiving deference to its interpretation of Section 706, there was widespread understanding that the FTC would not receive Chevron deference to its interpretations of its Section 5 UMC authority. “Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust” explored that issue, ultimately concluding that the FTC likely would indeed be given the benefit of Chevron deference, tracing the commission’s belief to the contrary back to longstanding institutional memory of pre-Chevron judicial losses.

The Administrative Antitrust Argument

The discussion above is more than mere historical navel-gazing. The context and setting in which those prior articles were written is important to understanding both their arguments and the continual currents that propel us across antitrust’s sea of doubt. But we should also look at the specific arguments from each paper in some detail, as well.

Administrative Antitrust

The opening lines of this paper capture the curious judicial statute of antitrust law:

Antitrust is a peculiar area of law, one that has long been treated as exceptional by the courts. Antitrust cases are uniquely long, complicated, and expensive; individual cases turn on case-specific facts, giving them limited precedential value; and what precedent there is changes on a sea of economic—rather than legal—theory. The principal antitrust statutes are minimalist and have left the courts to develop their meaning. As Professor Thomas Arthur has noted, “in ‘the anti-trust field the courts have been accorded, by common consent, an authority they have in no other branch of enacted law.’” …


This Article argues that the Supreme Court is moving away from this exceptionalist treatment of antitrust law and is working to bring antitrust within a normalized administrative law jurisprudence.

Much of this argument is based in the arguments framed above: Trinko and Credit Suisse prioritize regulation over the federal common law of antitrust, and American Electric Power emphasizes the general displacement of common law by regulation. The article adds, as well, the Court’s focus, at the time, against domain-specific “exceptionalism.” Its opinion in Mayo had rejected the longstanding view that tax law was “exceptional” in some way that excluded it from the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and other standard administrative law doctrine. And thus, so too must the Court’s longstanding treatment of antitrust as exceptional also fall.

Those arguments can all be characterized as pulling antitrust law toward an administrative approach. But there was a push as well. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed substantial concern about the difficulties that antitrust law poses for courts and litigants alike. His opinion for the majority notes that “it is difficult enough for courts to identify and remedy an alleged anticompetitive practice” and laments “[h]ow is a judge or jury to determine a ‘fair price?’” And Justice Stephen Breyer writes in concurrence, that “[w]hen a regulatory structure exists [as it does in this case] to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”

In other words, the argument in “Administrative Antitrust” goes, the Court is motivated both to bring antitrust law into a normalized administrative-law framework and also to remove responsibility for the messiness inherent in antitrust law from the courts’ dockets. This latter point will be of particular importance as we turn to how the Court is likely to think about the FTC’s potential use of its UMC authority to develop new antitrust rules.

Chevron and the Limits of Administrative Antitrust

The core argument in “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” is more doctrinal and institutionally focused. In its simplest statement, I merely applied Chevron as it was understood circa 2013 to the FTC’s UMC authority. There is little argument that “unfair methods of competition” is inherently ambiguous—indeed, the term was used, and the power granted to the FTC, expressly to give the agency flexibility and to avoid the limits the Court was placing on antitrust law in the early 20th century.

There are various arguments against application of Chevron to Section 5; the article goes through and rejects them all. Section 5 has long been recognized as including, but being broader than, the Sherman Act. National Petroleum Refiners has long held that the FTC has substantive-rulemaking authority—a conclusion made even more forceful by the Supreme Court’s more recent opinion in Iowa Utilities Board. Other arguments are (or were) unavailing.

The real puzzle the paper unpacks is why the FTC ever believed it wouldn’t receive the benefit of Chevron deference. The article traces it back to a series of cases the FTC lost in the 1980s, contemporaneous with the development of the Chevron doctrine. The commission had big losses in cases like E.I. Du Pont and Ethyl Corp. Perhaps most important, in its 1986 Indiana Federation of Dentists opinion (two years after Chevron was decided), the Court seemed to adopt a de novo standard for review of Section 5 cases. But, “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” argues, this is a misreading and overreading of Indiana Federation of Dentists (a close reading of which actually suggests that it is entirely in line with Chevron), and it misunderstands the case’s relationship with Chevron (the importance of which did not start to come into focus for another several years).

The curious conclusion of the argument is, in effect, that a generation of FTC lawyers, “shell-shocked by its treatment in the courts,” internalized the lesson that they would not receive the benefits of Chevron deference and that Section 5 was subject to de novo review, but also that this would start to change as a new generation of lawyers, trained in the modern Chevron era, came to practice within the halls of the FTC. Today, that prediction appears to have borne out.

Things Change

The conclusion from “Limits of Administrative Antitrust” that FTC lawyers failed to recognize that the agency would receive Chevron deference because they were half a generation behind the development of administrative-law doctrine is an important one. As much as antitrust law may be adrift in a sea of change, administrative law is even more so. From today’s perspective, it feels as though I wrote those articles at Chevron’s zenith—and watching the FTC consider aggressive use of its UMC authority feels like watching a commission that, once again, is half a generation behind the development of administrative law.

The tide against Chevron’sexpansive deference was already beginning to grow at the time I was writing. City of Arlington, though affirming application of Chevron to agencies’ interpretations of their own jurisdictional statutes in a 6-3 opinion, generated substantial controversy at the time. And a short while later, the Court decided a case that many in the telecom space view as a sea change: Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG). In UARG, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 9-0 majority, struck down an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation related to greenhouse gasses. In doing so, he invoked language evocative of what today is being debated as the major questions doctrine—that the Court “expect[s] Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast economic and political significance.” Two years after that, the Court decided Encino Motorcars, in which the Court acted upon a limit expressed in Fox v. FCC that agencies face heightened procedural requirements when changing regulations that “may have engendered serious reliance interests.”

And just like that, the dams holding back concern over the scope of Chevron have burst. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have openly expressed their views that Chevron needs to be curtailed or eliminated. Justice Brett Kavanaugh has written extensively in favor of the major questions doctrine. Chief Justice Roberts invoked the major questions doctrine in King v. Burwell. Each term, litigants are more aggressively bringing more aggressive cases to probe and tighten the limits of the Chevron doctrine. As I write this, we await the Court’s opinion in American Hospital Association v. Becerra—which, it is widely believed could dramatically curtail the scope of the Chevron doctrine.

Administrative Antitrust, Redux

The prospects for administrative antitrust look very different today than they did a decade ago. While the basic argument continues to hold—the Court will likely encourage and welcome a transition of antitrust law to a normalized administrative jurisprudence—the Court seems likely to afford administrative agencies (viz., the FTC) much less flexibility in how they administer antitrust law than they would have a decade ago. This includes through both the administrative-law vector, with the Court reconsidering how it views delegation of congressional authority to agencies such as through the major questions doctrine and agency rulemaking authority, as well as through the Court’s thinking about how agencies develop and enforce antitrust law.

Major Questions and Major Rules

Two hotly debated areas where we see this trend: the major questions doctrine and the ongoing vitality of National Petroleum Refiners. These are only briefly recapitulated here. The major questions doctrine is an evolving doctrine, seemingly of great interest to many current justices on the Court, that requires Congress to speak clearly when delegating authority to agencies to address major questions—that is, questions of vast economic and political significance. So, while the Court may allow an agency to develop rules governing mergers when tasked by Congress to prohibit acquisitions likely to substantially lessen competition, it is unlikely to allow that agency to categorically prohibit mergers based upon a general congressional command to prevent unfair methods of competition. The first of those is a narrow rule based upon a specific grant of authority; the other is a very broad rule based upon a very general grant of authority.

The major questions doctrine has been a major topic of discussion in administrative-law circles for the past several years. Interest in the National Petroleum Refiners question has been more muted, mostly confined to those focused on the FTC and FCC. National Petroleum Refiners is a 1973 D.C. Circuit case that found that the FTC Act’s grant of power to make rules to implement the act confers broad rulemaking power relating to the act’s substantive provisions. In 1999, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Iowa Utilities Board, finding that a provision in Section 202 of the Communications Act allowing the FCC to create rules seemingly for the implementation of that section conferred substantive rulemaking power running throughout the Communications Act.

Both National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board reflect previous generations’ understanding of administrative law—and, in particular, the relationship between the courts and Congress in empowering and policing agency conduct. That understanding is best captured in the evolution of the non-delegation doctrine, and the courts’ broad acceptance of broad delegations of congressional power to agencies in the latter half of the 20th century. National Petroleum Refiners and Iowa Utilities Board are not non-delegation cases-—but, similar to the major questions doctrine, they go to similar issues of how specific Congress must be when delegating broad authority to an agency.

In theory, there is little difference between an agency that can develop legal norms through case-by-case adjudications that are backstopped by substantive and procedural judicial review, on the one hand, and authority to develop substantive rules backstopped by procedural judicial review and by Congress as a check on substantive errors. In practice, there is a world of difference between these approaches. As with the Court’s concerns about the major questions doctrine, were the Court to review National Petroleum Refiners Association or Iowa Utilities Board today, it seems at least possible, if not simply unlikely, that most of the Justices would not so readily find agencies to have such broad rulemaking authority without clear congressional intent supporting such a finding.

Both of these ideas—the major question doctrine and limits on broad rules made using thin grants of rulemaking authority—present potential limits on the potential scope of rules the FTC might make using its UMC authority.

Limits on the Antitrust Side of Administrative Antitrust

The potential limits on FTC UMC rulemaking discussed above sound in administrative-law concerns. But administrative antitrust may also find a tepid judicial reception on antitrust concerns, as well.

Many of the arguments advanced in “Administrative Antitrust” and the Court’s opinions on the antitrust-regulation interface echo traditional administrative-law ideas. For instance, much of the Court’s preference that agencies granted authority to engage in antitrust or antitrust-adjacent regulation take precedence over the application of judicially defined antitrust law track the same separation of powers and expertise concerns that are central to the Chevron doctrine itself.

But the antitrust-focused cases—linkLine, Trinko, Credit Suisse—also express concerns specific to antitrust law. Chief Justice Roberts notes that the justices “have repeatedly emphasized the importance of clear rules in antitrust law,” and the need for antitrust rules to “be clear enough for lawyers to explain them to clients.” And the Court and antitrust scholars have long noted the curiosity that antitrust law has evolved over time following developments in economic theory. This extra-judicial development of the law runs contrary to basic principles of due process and the stability of the law.

The Court’s cases in this area express hope that an administrative approach to antitrust could give a clarity and stability to the law that is currently lacking. These are rules of vast economic significance: they are “the Magna Carta of free enterprise”; our economy organizes itself around them; substantial changes to these rules could have a destabilizing effect that runs far deeper than Congress is likely to have anticipated when tasking an agency with enforcing antitrust law. Empowering agencies to develop these rules could, the Court’s opinions suggest, allow for a more thoughtful, expert, and deliberative approach to incorporating incremental developments in economic knowledge into the law.

If an agency’s administrative implementation of antitrust law does not follow this path—and especially if the agency takes a disruptive approach to antitrust law that deviates substantially from established antitrust norms—this defining rationale for an administrative approach to antitrust would not hold.

The courts could respond to such overreach in several ways. They could invoke the major questions or similar doctrines, as above. They could raise due-process concerns, tracking Fox v. FCC and Encino Motorcars, to argue that any change to antitrust law must not be unduly disruptive to engendered reliance interests. They could argue that the FTC’s UMC authority, while broader than the Sherman Act, must be compatible with the Sherman Act. That is, while the FTC has authority for the larger circle in the antitrust Venn diagram, the courts continue to define the inner core of conduct regulated by the Sherman Act.

A final aspect to the Court’s likely approach to administrative antitrust falls from the Roberts Court’s decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law. First articulated in Judge Frank Easterbrook’s “The Limits of Antitrust,” the decision-theoretic approach to antitrust law focuses on the error costs of incorrect judicial decisions and the likelihood that those decisions will be corrected. The Roberts Court has strongly adhered to this framework in its antitrust decisions. This can be seen, for instance, in Justice Breyer’s statement that: “When a regulatory structure exists to deter and remedy anticompetitive harm, the costs of antitrust enforcement are likely to be greater than the benefits.”

The error-costs framework described by Judge Easterbrook focuses on the relative costs of errors, and correcting those errors, between judicial and market mechanisms. In the administrative-antitrust setting, the relevant comparison is between judicial and administrative error costs. The question on this front is whether an administrative agency, should it get things wrong, is likely to correct. Here there are two models, both of concern. The first is that in which law is policy or political preference. Here, the FCC’s approach to net neutrality and the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) approach to labor law loom large; there have been dramatic swing between binary policy preferences held by different political parties as control of agencies shifts between administrations. The second model is one in which Congress responds to agency rules by refining, rejecting, or replacing them through statute. Here, again, net neutrality and the FCC loom large, with nearly two decades of calls for Congress to clarify the FCC’s authority and statutory mandate, while the agency swings between policies with changing administrations.

Both of these models reflect poorly on the prospects for administrative antitrust and suggest a strong likelihood that the Court would reject any ambitious use of administrative authority to remake antitrust law. The stability of these rules is simply too important to leave to change with changing political wills. And, indeed, concern that Congress no longer does its job of providing agencies with clear direction—that Congress has abdicated its job of making important policy decisions and let them fall instead to agency heads—is one of the animating concerns behind the major questions doctrine.

Conclusion

Writing in 2013, it seemed clear that the Court was pushing antitrust law in an administrative direction, as well as that the FTC would likely receive broad Chevron deference in its interpretations of its UMC authority to shape and implement antitrust law. Roughly a decade later, the sands have shifted and continue to shift. Administrative law is in the midst of a retrenchment, with skepticism of broad deference and agency claims of authority.

Many of the underlying rationales behind the ideas of administrative antitrust remain sound. Indeed, I expect the FTC will play an increasingly large role in defining the contours of antitrust law and that the Court and courts will welcome this role. But that role will be limited. Administrative antitrust is a preferred vehicle for administering antitrust law, not for changing it. Should the FTC use its power aggressively, in ways that disrupt longstanding antitrust principles or seem more grounded in policy better created by Congress, it is likely to find itself on the losing side of the judicial opinion.

[Today’s second guest post, the sixth in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium, comes from Andrew K. Magloughlin and Randolph J. May of the Free State Foundation. See also the related post we published today from Richard J. Pierce Jr. of the George Washington University Law School. You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) current leadership appears likely to issue substantive rules concerning “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) at some point. FTC Chair Lina Khan, in an article with former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, argued that the commission has the authority to issue UMC rules pursuant to the Federal Trade Commission Act based on Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC and a subsequently enacted provision in 1975. But Petroleum Refiners is a nearly 50-year-old, untested, and heavily criticized opinion that predates the major questions doctrine and widespread adoption of textualism in the courts. Application of the major questions doctrine and modern, textualist methods of statutory interpretation almost certainly would lead to a determination that the commission lacks UMC rulemaking authority.

Our submission to this Truth on the Market symposium argues that today’s Supreme Court would find that the FTC lacks authority to issue UMC rules under the major questions doctrine.[1] Part I reviews the provisions of the FTC Act relevant to UMC rulemaking and scholarly commentary on the issue. Part II argues that, applying the major questions doctrine as the Court has done in recent opinions such as NFIB v. OSHA, the Supreme Court would find that the FTC lacks UMC rulemaking authority because Congress could not have intended such a cryptic delegation to authorize sweeping rules of such economic significance.

Text, Structure, and Interpretation of the FTC Act

The FTC Act establishes the FTC and its authority. Section 5 of the FTC Act declares unlawful “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce” and empowers the commission to stop them. The law provides specific procedures for an administrative adjudicatory process that the commission “shall” use to stop unfair methods of competition when it identifies them and believes stopping them is in the public interest. The remainder of Section 5 involves provisions related to available remedies and jurisdiction for appeal of final decisions from FTC adjudications. This is the extent of explicit authority the FTC Act contains related to UMC.

In the next portion of the same subchapter, Section 6(g) states: “The Commission shall also have power . . . to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” In 1973’s Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit interpreted this provision to grant the commission substantive rulemaking authority to implement Section 5. While Petroleum Refiners involved rules regarding “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” under Section 5, rather than UMC rules, its reasoning, if still valid today, seemingly could authorize the commission to issue UMC rules. But the FTC has never issued UMC rules to date.

Congress responded to Petroleum Refiners by enacting laws in 1975 and 1980 that imposed significant procedural burdens on the FTC’s rulemaking process for unfair or deceptive acts. These burdens, known as the “Magnuson-Moss procedures,” are far more exacting than the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment rulemaking process and, since adopted, they have had the effect of stopping the FTC from issuing rules for governing unfair or deceptive acts.

FTC Chair Khan believes that, in adopting the Magnuson-Moss procedures, Congress has implicitly codified Petroleum Refiners‘ holding that the FTC has authority to issue UMC rules. She argues that legislative history for the 1975 amendments show that Congress rejected a version of the bill that applied Magnuson-Moss procedures to all FTC rulemaking, rather than just unfair or deceptive acts rulemaking. And the enacted statute, as well as the conference report for the adopted law, stated that Magnuson-Moss procedures “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” Khan believes that this provision implicitly recognized that, in accord with the holding of Petroleum Refiners, that Section 6(g) grants the commission authority to issue substantive UMC rules. Moreover, in her view, if the FTC adopted her position as its official interpretation of the statute, it would be entitled to Chevron deference.

Other commentators disagree persuasively. Richard Pierce notes that the provision Khan points to as implicitly adopting Petroleum Refiners just as easily could be interpreted to clarify that Magnuson-Moss procedures do not apply to interpretative rules and policy statements for UMC adjudications. This argument, though, does not completely eliminate ambiguity, because the statute used the non-exclusive word including in the phrase “rules (including interpretative rules) and general statements of policy” rather than expressly limiting the exemption to those two types of rules.

But Pierce, more forcefully, argues that Khan’s interpretation depends on the Petroleum Refiners interpretation of the FTC Act remaining good law, and this is doubtful. Petroleum Refiners employed a non-textualist method of statutory interpretation that courts do not apply today. That case held that an ambiguous grant “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter” should be construed to favor the agency’s interpretation of its authority under that provision. This holding appears to conflict with the Supreme Court’s more searching review for identifying congressional delegations to agencies to issue substantive rules in Untied States v. Mead Corp., a case decided more than two decades after Petroleum Refiners. Mead Corp. explained that agencies are entitled to Chevron deference for their application of their authorizing statutes when “Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and that the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.”

The D.C. Circuit itself may have already implicitly overruled Petroleum Refiners while applying Mead Corp. in more recent cases. In American Library Association v. FCC, the D.C. Circuit adopted a far more skeptical reading of a similar general grant of authority—the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) general grant in Title I of the Communications Act, which reads: “The Commission may perform any and all acts, make such rules and regulations, and issue such orders, not inconsistent with this chapter, as may be necessary in the execution of its functions.” The FCC had issued its Broadcast Flag Order relying solely on its general grant of authority in Title I.

But the D.C. Circuit, applying Mead Corp., held that the FCC could only issue substantive rules pursuant to its general grant of authority when: “(1) the Commission’s general jurisdictional grant under Title I covers the subject of the regulations and (2) the regulations are reasonably ancillary to the Commission’s effective performance of its statutorily mandated responsibilities.” In other words, only when the substantive rules reasonably relate to explicit authority contained in the Communications Act. Petroleum Refiners is inconsistent with this subsequent holding of the D.C. Circuit.

Further, William Kovacic—a former FTC chair, commissioner, and general counsel—explains that the unanimous Supreme Court opinion in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC implicitly refutes Petroleum Refiners. In AMG, the Court rejected the FTC’s interpretation of Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which states that the commission “may bring suit in a district court of the United States to enjoin” violations of the law that the FTC enforces. The FTC argued that Section 13(b) empowered it to seek equitable monetary relief, despite the provision’s circumscribed focus on injunctions. But the court explained that this focus on injunctions, as well as the structure of the act as a whole, counseled otherwise. And unlike Section 13(b), other FTC Act provisions expressly empower the commission to seek “other forms of relief” in addition to injunctions, demonstrating that Congress would have explicitly authorized equitable monetary relief if it intended Section 13(b) to provide it.

As Kovacic explains, the AMG opinion was “not so generous” to the FTC’s interpretation of the FTC Act, refuting the deferential approach of Petroleum Refiners. It seems unlikely, given the above criticisms of Petroleum Refiners, that the Court would be any more deferential to an attempt by Khan or a future FTC chair to issue substantive UMC rules. This is especially true because, as explained below, the major questions doctrine likely would resolve the question of the FTC’s UMC authority against the commission.

Today’s Major Questions Doctrine Most Likely Would Slam the Door Shut on FTC UMC Rulemaking

Under current jurisprudence, the Supreme Court’s application of the major questions doctrine most likely would slam the door shut on the FTC’s supposed authority to issue UMC rules. The major questions doctrine is a canon of statutory interpretation that the Court developed as an exception or limitation to application of Chevron deference, even if the Court appears to now apply it independently of Chevron. It applies to judicial review of agency interpretations of statutory authority to issue substantive rules. Put simply, the major questions doctrine is a linguistic canon that requires “Congress to speak clearly when authorizing an agency to exercise powers of vast economic and political significance,” or put more colloquially, that prevents Congress from “hiding elephants in mouseholes.”

The underlying purpose of the major questions doctrine is the protection of separation of powers. However, the context in which it protects separation of powers is not entirely clear because the Court’s views appear to be, at present, unsettled.[2] The “clear statement” version of the major questions doctrine protects separation of powers by preventing the executive branch from relying on strained interpretations of delegated statutory authority. But multiple Supreme Court justices have at times argued for a substantive major questions doctrine—one that would bar certain “major” delegations altogether, regardless of the clarity of the congressional delegation.[3] For our purposes, in this piece, we apply the major questions doctrine as a clear-statement rule, which at present is the controlling law.

There are several factors that the Court has identified as warranting application of the major questions doctrine. The two most common factors can be thought of as (1) claims of sweeping authority, or massive elephants, enabled through (2) cryptic statutory texts, or tiny mouseholes. For example, in Alabama Association of Realtors v. HHS, the Supreme Court applied the major questions doctrine, in part, because the “sheer scope” of the rule in that case was dramatic—affecting 80% of the country’s population and superseding a traditional area of state regulation. In other words, a massive elephant. An example of a tiny mousehole is, in NFIB v. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) reliance on statutory authority for “workplace safety” regulations to require broad public-health mandates like compulsory vaccination, which affects people far beyond the confines of the workplace.

Other relevant factors include assertions of authority despite long-held contrary indications from Congress and the agency itself, or a history of failure to assert similar authority. For example, in Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FDA, the Court found it relevant that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserted regulatory authority over tobacco products, despite Congress’ creation of a distinct regulatory structure for tobacco outside the purview of the FDA and decades of assertions by Congress and FDA leadership that the FDA lacked authority to regulate tobacco. In NFIB, the Court noted that OSHA’s vaccine mandate was its first sweeping public-health measure under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in its more than 50 years of existence.

Applying the major questions doctrine to the FTC’s supposed UMC rulemaking authority would mean that the commission almost certainly lacks such authority. First, many of the relevant factors for the major questions doctrine are present. The scope of potential UMC rulemaking is sweeping, covering most of our nation’s economy—a big elephant. And the provision supposedly enabling the commission’s rulemaking authority—Section 6(g), which contains general language, rather than an explicit delegation of authority to the commission—amounts to a tiny mousehole. The FTC Act provision Khan points to as implicitly codifying Petroleum Refiners is even less specific; it simply asserts that Section 18a of the FTC Act will have no effect on the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority. But if the commission never had such rulemaking authority in the first place under Section 6(g), then this provision is irrelevant and provides no implicit codification, let alone the clear statement required by the major questions doctrine. Thus, an even tinier mousehole.

Analysis of the statutory text and legislative history Khan identifies shows precisely how tiny that mousehole is. As mentioned above, Khan believes that Congress’ rejection of a draft bill that applied Magnuson-Moss procedures to UMC rulemaking proves that Congress implicitly endorsed Petroleum Refiners. Not so. Instead, by clarifying that Section 18a “shall not affect any authority of the Commission to prescribe rules … with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce,” Congress likely was rejecting Petroleum Refiners as applied to UMC rulemaking. Congress did indeed codify the Petroleum Refiners holding that the FTC has authority to issue rules for unfair or deceptive acts or practices by subjecting them to the rigorous Magnuson-Moss procedures. But by stating that those procedures did not affect the FTC’s authority for UMC rules, any authority for the commission to issue such rules depends solely on interpretation of Section 6(g)—or the continued vitality of Petroleum Refiners. A provision that says nothing about the issue at hand is among the tiniest imaginable mouseholes.

Further, the FTC, since its creation in 1914, has failed to issue any UMC rulemakings over the past 108 years. As Richard Pierce explains, between 1914 and 1962, when the unfair or deceptive practice rules under review in Petroleum Refiners were first introduced, “the FTC, Congress, courts, and scholars were unanimous in their belief that the FTC did not have the power to issue legislative rules.” An assertion claiming such authority to issue rules now would be a bureaucratic power-grabbing bridge too far, if not to nowhere.

Should the occasion arise, for all the reasons discussed, we predict the Supreme Court will slam the door shut on FTC UMC rulemaking authority.


[1] It is also possible that any UMC rules issued would be determined to violate the nondelegation doctrine, aside from whether reviewing courts considered the major questions doctrine part and parcel of the nondelegation doctrine. In this essay, we are focusing on current major questions doctrine jurisprudence that often is not tied, at least explicitly, to traditional nondelegation doctrine analysis.

[2] We authored a law review article dedicated to this subject.

[3] See, for example, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s dissent in Gundy v. United States, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, which argued that the major questions doctrine should step in to replace the Court’s failure to enforce the nondelegation doctrine.

[Continuing our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium, today’s first guest post is from Richard J. Pierce Jr., the Lyle T. Alverson Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. We are also publishing a related post today from Andrew K. Magloughlin and Randolph J. May of the Free State Foundation. You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

FTC Rulemaking Power

In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed a prolific young scholar, Lina Khan, to chair the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Khan strongly dislikes almost every element of antitrust law. She has stated her intention to use notice and comment rulemaking to change antitrust law in many ways. She was unable to begin this process for almost a year because the FTC was evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees, and she has not been able to elicit any support for her agenda from the Republican members. She will finally get the majority she needs to act in the next few days, as the U.S. Senate appears set to confirm Alvaro Bedoya to the fifth spot on the commission.   

Chair Khan has argued that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define the term “unfair methods of competition” as that term is used in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Section 5 authorizes the FTC to define and to prohibit both “unfair acts” and “unfair methods of competition.” For more than 50 years after the 1914 enactment of the statute, the FTC, Congress, courts, and scholars interpreted it to empower the FTC to use adjudication to implement Section 5, but not to use rulemaking for that purpose.

In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5. Congress responded by amending the statute in 1975 and 1980 to add many time-consuming and burdensome procedures to the notice-and-comment process. Those added procedures had the effect of making the rulemaking process so long that the FTC gave up on its attempts to use rulemaking to implement Section 5.

Khan claims that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” even though it must use the extremely burdensome procedures that Congress added in 1975 and 1980 to define “unfair acts.” Her claim is based on a combination of her belief that the current U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the 1973 D.C. Circuit decision that held that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5 and her belief that a peculiarly worded provision of the 1975 amendment to the FTC Act allows the FTC to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” even though it requires the FTC to use the extremely burdensome procedure to issue rules that define “unfair acts.” The FTC has not attempted to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition” since Congress amended the statute in 1975. 

I am skeptical of Khan’s argument. I doubt that the Supreme Court would uphold the 1973 D.C. Circuit opinion, because the D.C. Circuit used a method of statutory interpretation that no modern court uses and that is inconsistent with the methods of statutory interpretation that the Supreme Court uses today. I also doubt that the Supreme Court would interpret the 1975 statutory amendment to distinguish between “unfair acts” and “unfair methods of competition” for purposes of the procedures that the FTC is required to use to issue rules to implement Section 5.

Even if the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” I am confident that the Supreme Court would not uphold an exercise of that power that has the effect of making a significant change in antitrust law. That would be a perfect candidate for application of the major questions doctrine. The court will not uphold an “unprecedented” action of “vast economic or political significance” unless it has “unmistakable legislative support.” I will now describe four hypothetical exercises of the rulemaking power that Khan believes that the FTC possesses to illustrate my point.

Hypothetical Exercises of FTC Rulemaking Power

Creation of a Right to Repair

President Biden has urged the FTC to create a right for an owner of any product to repair the product or to have it repaired by an independent service organization (ISO). The Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Eastman Kodak v. Image Technical Services tells us all we need to know about the likelihood that it would uphold a rule that confers a right to repair. When Kodak took actions that made it impossible for ISOs to repair Kodak photocopiers, the ISOs argued that Kodak’s action violated both Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The Court held that Kodak could prevail only if it could persuade a jury that its view of the facts was accurate. The Court remanded the case for a jury trial to address three contested issues of fact.

The Court’s reasoning in Kodak is inconsistent with any version of a right to repair that the FTC might attempt to create through rulemaking. The Court expressed its view that allowing an ISO to repair a product sometimes has good effects and sometimes has bad effects. It concluded that it could not decide whether Kodak’s new policy was good or bad without first resolving the three issues of fact on which the parties disagreed. In a 2021 report to Congress, the FTC agreed with the Supreme Court. It identified seven factual contingencies that can cause a prohibition on repair of a product by an ISO to have good effects or bad effects. It is naïve to expect the Supreme Court to change its approach to repair rights in response to a rule in which the FTC attempts to create a right to repair, particularly when the FTC told Congress that it agrees with the Court’s approach immediately prior to Khan’s arrival at the agency.

Prohibition of Reverse-Payment Settlements of Patent Disputes Involving Prescription Drugs

Some people believe that settlements of patent-infringement disputes in which the manufacturer of a generic drug agrees not to market the drug in return for a cash payment from the manufacturer of the brand-name drug are thinly disguised agreements to create a monopoly and to share the monopoly rents. Khan has argued that the FTC could issue a rule that prohibits such reverse-payment settlements. Her belief that a court would uphold such a rule is contradicted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 opinion in FTC v. Actavis. The Court unanimously rejected the FTC’s argument in support of a rebuttable presumption that reverse payments are illegal. Four justices argued that reverse-payment settlements can never be illegal if they are within the scope of the patent. The five-justice majority held that a court can determine that a reverse-payment settlement is illegal only after a hearing in which it applies the rule of reason to determine whether the payment was reasonable.

A Prohibition on Below-Cost Pricing When the Firm Cannot Recoup Its Losses

Khan believes that illegal predatory pricing by dominant firms is widespread and extremely harmful to competition. She particularly dislikes the Supreme Court’s test for identifying predatory pricing. That test requires proof that a firm that engages in below-cost pricing has a reasonable prospect of recouping its losses. She wants the FTC to issue a rule in which it defines predatory pricing as below-cost pricing without any prospect that the firm will be able to recoup its losses.

The history of the Court’s predatory-pricing test shows how unrealistic it is to expect the Court to uphold such a rule. The Court first announced the test in a Sherman Act case in 1986. Plaintiffs attempted to avoid the precedential effect of that decision by filing complaints based on predatory pricing under the Robinson-Patman Act. The Court rejected that attempt in a 1993 opinion. The Court made it clear that the test for determining whether a firm is engaged in illegal predatory pricing is the same no matter whether the case arises under the Sherman Act or the Robinson-Patman Act. The Court undoubtedly would reject the FTC’s effort to change the definition of predatory pricing by relying on the FTC Act instead of the Sherman Act or the Robinson-Patman Act.

A Prohibition of Noncompete Clauses in Contracts to Employ Low-Wage Employees

President Biden has expressed concern about the increasing prevalence of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low wage employees. He wants the FTC to issue a rule that prohibits inclusion of noncompete clauses in contracts to employ low-wage employees. The Supreme Court would be likely to uphold such a rule.

A rule that prohibits inclusion of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees would differ from the other three rules I discussed in many respects. First, it has long been the law that noncompete clauses can be included in employment contracts only in narrow circumstances, none of which have any conceivable application to low-wage contracts. The only reason that competition authorities did not bring actions against firms that include noncompete clauses in low-wage employment contracts was their belief that state labor law would be effective in deterring firms from engaging in that practice. Thus, the rule would be entirely consistent with existing antitrust law.

Second, there are many studies that have found that state labor law has not been effective in deterring firms from including noncompete clauses in low-wage employment contracts and many studies that have found that the increasing use of noncompete clauses in low-wage contracts is causing a lot of damage to the performance of labor markets. Thus, the FTC would be able to support its rule with high-quality evidence.

Third, the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in NCAA v. Alstom indicates that the Court is receptive to claims that a practice that harms the performance of labor markets is illegal. Thus, I predict that the Court would uphold a rule that prohibits noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees if it holds that the FTC can use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” as that term is used in Section 5 of the FTC Act. That caveat is important, however. As I indicated at the beginning of this essay, I doubt that the FTC has that power.

I would urge the FTC not to use notice-and comment rulemaking to address the problems that are caused by the increasing use of noncompete clauses in low-wage contracts. There is no reason for the FTC to put a lot of time and effort into a notice-and-comment rulemaking in the hope that the Court will conclude that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5. The FTC can implement an effective prohibition on the inclusion of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees by using a combination of legal tools that it has long used and that it clearly has the power to use—issuance of interpretive rules and policy statements coupled with a few well-chosen enforcement actions.

Alternative Ways to Improve Antitrust Law       

There are many other ways in which Khan can move antitrust law in the directions that she prefers. She can make common cause with the many mainstream antitrust scholars who have urged incremental changes in antitrust law and who have conducted the studies needed to support those proposed changes. Thus, for instance, she can move aggressively against other practices that harm the performance of labor markets, change the criteria that the FTC uses to decide whether to challenge proposed mergers and acquisitions, and initiate actions against large platform firms that favor their products over the products of third parties that they sell on their platforms.     

[This guest post from Corbin K. Barthold of TechFreedomthe fourth post in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium—is adapted from his and Berin Szoka’s chapter “The Constitutional Revolution That Wasn’t: Why the FTC Isn’t a Second National Legislature,” in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. It is the second of two contributions to the symposium posted today, along with this related post from Yale Law School student Leah Samuel. You can find other posts at the symposium 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 1972, a case came before the Hon. Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr., a federal trial judge in the District of Columbia, involving the scope of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) regulatory authority. Section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act outlaws “unfair methods of competition.” Section 6(g) says that the FTC may “make rules and regulations for the purposes of carrying out” the FTC Act.

What is a “rule or regulation” that helps “carry out” a statute? Does Section 6(g) simply permit the FTC to make “procedural” or “housekeeping” rules that set forth how the agency will conduct itself? Or does it instead empower the FTC to make “substantive” or “legislative” rules—precepts, binding on the public, that flesh out which methods of competition are “unfair”? This was the question before Judge Robinson.

If this question interests you, Robinson’s decision in National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC will repay close study.

Robinson kept his eye squarely on the FTC Act’s text and structure. What stood out to him, when he examined the statute, is the glaring structural distinction between Section 5 and Section 6. Section 5 enables the agency to file complaints, hold hearings, make findings of fact, and issue cease-and-desist orders. Section 6 permits the agency to gather and publish information about corporate practices. Each section is closely concerned with its assigned topic: Section 5 explains, in detail, how the FTC shall exercise quasi-judicial powers; Section 6 explains, in detail, how the FTC shall exercise investigative powers. The two sections have little to say to each other. This, concluded Robinson, was a strong signal that Section 6(g) does not leap its fence, progress to Section 5(a)(1), and enable the creation of rules that define “unfair methods of competition.”

That was just the beginning. Why would Congress pair a vague and open-ended rulemaking power with an elaborate and strictly circumscribed quasi-judicial power? If the FTC could make whole categories of conduct unlawful by diktat, why would it endure the rigmarole of Section 5 adjudication? More to the point, why would Congress bother to spell out that process, knowing that the FTC would go around it? In full, moreover, Section 6(g) gives the FTC the power “[f]rom time to time to classify corporations and to make rules and regulations for the purposes of carrying out the provisions of [the Act].” What is the part about “classify[ing]” companies doing there? Read as a whole, Section 6(g) seems merely to equip the FTC to conduct investigations, including, as Robinson put it, by ensuring that the agency has “the power to require reports from all corporations.”

Nor did the clues end there. Other statutes expressly grant the FTC the power to issue discrete consumer-protection rules, such as rules governing the labels of wool products. Congress knew how to grant legislative rulemaking power when it wanted to do so. And the limited grants of such power, in the other statutes, would be superfluous if the FTC already possessed a general “unfair methods” rulemaking authority in Section 6(g).

(Although Robinson did not mention it, a further sign of Section 6(g)’s narrow scope is the absence of statutory penalties for violating an FTC-issued rule. In the era when the FTC Act was passed, Congress never granted the power to make substantive rules without also specifying the price of noncompliance.)

In short, the FTC Act’s text and structure show that Section 6(g) has no intention of helping Section 5(a)(1). And when he checked his work against the FTC Act’s legislative history, Robinson found out why that is so. Section 6(g), he discovered, was originally in a House bill “that conferred only investigative powers on the Commission.” A competing bill in the Senate, meanwhile, contained quasi-judicial powers and the “unfair methods” standard but “made no provision whatever for the promulgation of rules and regulations in any context.” The investigations-only House bill and the no-rulemaking-power Senate bill were eventually stitched together. No wonder Section 6(g) does not seem to support the creation of legislative rules about the meaning of Section 5(a)(1); the two provisions were born into different bills.

If more support were needed, added Robinson, the FTC’s conduct would provide it. It had taken the FTC 50 years to “notice” a vast store of authority hiding in Section 6(g)—yet another revealing indication, Robinson wrote, “that the FTC knew it was not originally granted this rulemaking authority.” Over the years, the agency had even “repeatedly admitted that it has no power to promulgate substantive rules of law.”

Life is not fair. Judge Robinson’s well-crafted order is not good law. It was reversed. And in its place stands an appellate opinion that is longer, more repetitive, less rigorous, less disciplined, and altogether less convincing than the decision it overturns.

“Our duty,” U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright pronounced at the outset of his 1973 opinion in National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC, “is not simply to make a policy judgment.” The FTC, after all, “is a creation of Congress, not a creation of judges’ contemporary notions of what is wise policy.” He might then have said: We therefore adopt the careful opinion of Judge Robinson as our own—affirmed.

He did not say that. In opening with a pious renunciation of judicial policymaking, in fact, he protested too much.

Wright’s treatment of the FTC Act’s text is brusque and general. Construing Section 6(g) to allow substantive rulemaking, Wright submitted, would “not in any formal sense circumvent” the quasi-judicial enforcement mechanism of Section 5. Congress, he went on, had not explicitly told the FTC it could only proceed case-by-case. He then discussed a pair of Supreme Court cases that, though concededly not on point, suggest the FTC Act should be read “broad[ly]” and as a “whole.” And he recited Section 6(g) itself, as though its support for his position were self-evident.

This casual nod to text complete, Wright moved on to his true preoccupation—policy considerations. Over and over, he praised the “invaluable resource-saving flexibility” of rulemaking. According to Wright:

  • “[U]se of substantive rule-making is increasingly felt to yield significant benefits. … Increasingly, courts are recognizing that use of rule-making to make innovations in agency policy may actually be fairer to regulated parties than total reliance on case-by-case adjudication.”
  • “[C]ontemporary considerations of practicality and fairness … certainly support the Commission’s position here.”
  • “Such benefits are especially obvious in cases involving the initiation of rules of the sort the FTC has promulgated here.”
  • “[T]he policy innovation involved in this case underscores the need for increased reliance on rule-making rather than adjudication alone.”
  • “[The FTC] has remained hobbled in its task by the delay inherent in repetitious, lengthy litigation[.] … To the extent substantive rule-making … is likely to deal with these problems … [it] should be upheld as [allowed under the FTC Act].”
  • “[T]he Commission will be able to proceed more expeditiously, … and … more efficiently with a mixed system of rule-making and adjudication[.]”
  • “[C]ourts have stressed the advantages of efficiency and expedition which inhere in reliance on rule-making instead of adjudication alone.”

So much for eschewing “judges’ contemporary notions of what is wise policy”! Rulemaking was the wave of the future, as all fashionable and enlightened judges understood. Wright seemed to believe, therefore, that he should insert into the FTC Act the power to make substantive rules. Whether the helpless text could bear such a reading was a secondary concern at best.

When not providing his personal endorsement of the benefits of rulemaking, Wright repeatedly invoked the FTC Act’s “purpose”:

  • “[R]ejecting the claim of rule-making power would run counter to the broad policies … that clearly motivated Congress in 1914.”
  • “[T]he broad, undisputed policies which clearly motivated the framers of the [FTC] Act of 1914 would indeed be furthered by our view[.]”
  • “[R]ule-making is not only consistent with the original framers’ broad purposes, but appears to be a particularly apt means of carrying them out.”
  • The FTC needs rulemaking power “to do the job assigned by Congress.”

But a judge may not appeal to a statute’s “purpose” on the false cry that he is divining what the legislators “really” meant. The Supreme Court in more recent years has explained that “no legislation pursues its purposes at all costs,” and that “it frustrates rather than effectuates legislative intent simplistically to assume that whatever furthers the statute’s primary objective must be the law.”The missing ingredient in Wright’s long document—what should have been the main ingredient—is obedience to the statutory text and structure.

Wright’s opinion in National Petroleum Refiners is a museum piece. It is a fossilized remnant of an extinct species of statutory interpretation. For a court trying to understand the FTC Act today, it is next to useless. Judges may not let their rulings be driven by their sense of “policy,” by their intuitions about statutory “purpose,” or by their desire for a personally satisfying result. The Supreme Court has shut the door on these factors. The judiciary possesses “no roving license,” it has said, to rewrite a statute on the assumption that “Congress ‘must have intended’ something broader.” Judges are “expounders of what the law is,” not “policymakers choosing what the law should be.”

[This guest post from Lawrence J. Spiwak of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies is the second in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium. You can find other posts at the symposium 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.]

While antitrust and regulation are supposed to be different sides of the same coin, there has always been a healthy debate over which enforcement paradigm is the most efficient. For those who have long suffered under the zealous hand of ex ante regulation, they would gladly prefer to be overseen by the more dispassionate and case-specific oversight of antitrust. Conversely, those dissatisfied with the current state of antitrust enforcement have increased calls to abandon the ex post approach of antitrust and return to some form of active, “always on” regulation.

While the “antitrust versus regulation” debate has raged for some time, the election of President Joe Biden has brought a new wrinkle: Lina Khan, the controversial chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has made it very clear that she would like to expand the commission’s role from that of a mere enforcer of the nation’s antitrust laws to that of an agency that also promulgates ex ante “bright line” rules. Thus, the “antitrust versus regulation” debate is no longer academic.

Khan’s efforts to convert the FTC into a de facto regulator should surprise no one, however. Even before she was nominated, Khan was quite vocal about her policy vision for the FTC. For example, in 2020, she co-authored an essay with her former boss (and later briefly her FTC colleague) Rohit Chopra in the University of Chicago Law Review titled “The Case for ‘Unfair Methods of Competition’ Rulemaking.” In it, Khan and Chopra lay out both legal and policy arguments to support “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) rulemaking. But as I explain in a law review published last year in the Federalist Society Review titled “A Change in Direction for the Federal Trade Commission?”, Khan and Chopra’s arguments simply do not hold up to scrutiny. While I encourage those interested in the bounds of the FTC’s UMC rulemaking authority to read my paper in full, for purposes of this symposium, I include a brief summary of my analysis below.

At the outset of their essay, Chopra and Khan lay out what they believe to be the shortcomings of modern antitrust enforcement. As they correctly note, “[a]ntitrust law today is developed exclusively through adjudication,” which is designed to “facilitate[] nuanced and fact-specific analysis of liability and well-tailored remedies.” However, the authors contend that, while a case-by-case approach may sound great in theory, “in practice, the reliance on case-by-case adjudication yields a system of enforcement that generates ambiguity, unduly drains resources from enforcers, and deprives individuals and firms of any real opportunity to democratically participate in the process.” Chopra and Khan blame this alleged policy failure on the abandonment of per se rules in favor of the use of the “rule-of-reason” approach in antitrust jurisprudence. In their view, a rule-of-reason approach is nothing more than “a broad and open-ended inquiry into the overall competitive effects of particular conduct [which] asks judges to weigh the circumstances to decide whether the practice at issue violates the antitrust laws.” To remedy this perceived analytical shortcoming, they argue that the commission should step into the breach and promulgate ex ante bright-line rules to better enforce the prohibition against “unfair methods of competition” (UMC) outlined in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

As a threshold matter, while courts have traditionally provided guidance as to what exactly constitutes “unfair methods of competition,” Chopra and Khan argue that it should be the FTC that has that responsibility in the first instance. According to Chopra and Khan, because Congress set up the FTC as the independent expert agency to implement the FTC Act and because the phrase “unfair methods of competition” is ambiguous, courts must accord great deference to “FTC interpretations of ‘unfair methods of competition’” under the Supreme Court’s Chevron doctrine.

The authors then argue that the FTC has statutory authority to promulgate substantive rules to enforce the FTC’s interpretation of UMC. In particular, they point to the broad catch-all provision in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Section 6(g) provides, in relevant part, that the FTC may “[f]rom time to time . . . make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this subchapter.” Although this catch-all rulemaking provision is far from the detailed statutory scheme Congress set forth in the Magnuson-Moss Act to govern rulemaking to deal with Section 5’s other prohibition against “unfair or deceptive acts and practices” (UDAP), Chopra and Khan argue that the D.C. Circuit’s 1973 ruling in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC—a case that predates the Magnuson-Moss Act—provides judicial affirmation that the FTC has the authority to “promulgate substantive rules, not just procedural rules” under Section 6(g). Stating Khan’s argument differently: although there may be no affirmative specific grant of authority for the FTC to engage in UMC rulemaking, in the absence of any limit on such authority, the FTC may engage in UMC rulemaking subject to the constraints of the Administrative Procedure Act.

As I point out in my paper, while there are certainly strong arguments that the FTC lacks UMC rulemaking authority (see, e.g., Ohlhausen & Rill, “Pushing the Limits? A Primer on FTC Competition Rulemaking”), it is my opinion that, given the current state of administrative law—in particular, the high level of judicial deference accorded to agencies under both Chevron and the “arbitrary and capricious standard”—whether the FTC can engage in UMC rulemaking remains a very open question.

That said, even if we assume arguendo that the FTC does, in fact, have UMC rulemaking authority, the case law nonetheless reveals that, despite Khan’s hopes and desires, the FTC cannot unilaterally abandon the consumer welfare standard. As I explain in detail in my paper, even with great judicial deference, it is well-established that independent agencies simply cannot ignore antitrust terms of art (especially when that agency is specifically charged with enforcing the antitrust laws).  Thus, Khan may get away with initiating UMC rulemaking, but, for example, attempting to impose a mandatory common carrier-style non-discrimination rule may be a bridge too far.

Khan’s Policy Arguments in Favor of UMC Rulemaking

Separate from the legal debate over whether the FTC can engage in UMC rulemaking, it is also important to ask whether the FTC should engage in UMC rulemaking. Khan essentially posits that the American economy needs a generic business regulator possessed with plenary power and expansive jurisdiction. Given the United States’ well-documented (and sordid) experience with public-utility regulation, that’s probably not a good idea.

Indeed, to Khan and Chopra, ex ante regulation is superior to ex post antitrust enforcement. For example, they submit that UMC “rulemaking would enable the Commission to issue clear rules to give market participants sufficient notice about what the law is, helping ensure that enforcement is predictable.” Moreover, they argue that “establishing rules could help relieve antitrust enforcement of steep costs and prolonged trials.” In particular, “[t]argeting conduct through rulemaking, rather than adjudication, would likely lessen the burden of expert fees or protracted litigation, potentially saving significant resources on a present-value basis.” And third, they contend that rulemaking “would enable the Commission to establish rules through a transparent and participatory process, ensuring that everyone who may be affected by a new rule has the opportunity to weigh in on it, granting the rule greater legitimacy.”   

Khan’s published writings argue forcefully for greater regulatory power, but they suffer from analytical omissions that render her judgment questionable. For example, it is axiomatic that, while it is easy to imagine or theorize about the many benefits of regulation, regulation imposes significant costs of both the intended and unintended sorts. These costs can include compliance costs, reductions of innovation and investment, and outright entry deterrence that protects incumbents. Yet nowhere in her co-authored essay does Khan contemplate a cost-benefit analysis before promulgating a new regulation; she appears to assume that regulation is always costless, easy, and beneficial, on net. Unfortunately, history shows that we cannot always count on FTC commissioners to engage in wise policymaking.

Khan also fails to contemplate the possibility that changing market circumstances or inartful drafting might call for the removal of regulations previously imposed. Among other things, this failure calls into question her rationale that “clear rules” would make “enforcement … predictable.” Why, then, does the government not always use clear rules, instead of the ham-handed approach typical of regulatory interventions? More importantly, enforcement of rules requires adjudication on a case-by-case basis that is governed by precedent from prior applications of the rule and due process.

Taken together, Khan’s analytical omissions reveal a lack of historical awareness about (and apparently any personal experience with) the realities of modern public-utility regulation. Indeed, Khan offers up as an example of purported rulemaking success the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which imposed legacy common-carrier regulations designed for the old Ma Bell monopoly on the internet. But as I detail extensively in my paper, the history of net-neutrality regulation bears witness that Khan’s assertions that this process provided “clear rules,” was faster and cheaper, and allowed for meaningful public participation simply are not true.

Truth on the Market will host a virtual symposium, starting April 25, on the limits of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) rulemaking authority over unfair methods of competition (UMC). This symposium will be the first to incorporate a “new voices” writing competition: early-career scholars are encouraged to submit contributions. Winners, who will be selected by a panel of former FTC officials, will be published as part of the symposium. A first prize of $2,500 will be awarded to the best contribution, as selected by this panel.

The Limits of FTC UMC Rulemaking Symposium

There is widespread interest in the potential tools that the Biden administration FTC may use to address a range of competition-related and competition-adjacent concerns. Among other issues, there have been indications that the FTC may use its broad UMC authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act to make rules that address a wide range of conduct.

The symposium will feature contributions of 1,500 to 4,000 words discussing these issues, and written by academics, practitioners, and former agency officials. Sample topics of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • Constitutional limits on UMC rulemaking: does such rulemaking potentially present “major question” or delegation issues? If so, what is the scope of permissible rulemaking?
  • Substantive issues in UMC rulemaking: costs and benefits to be considered, prudential concerns, and the like.
  • Using UMC to address competition-adjacent issues: there is lots of discussion about how or whether to use the FTC’s UMC authority to address firm conduct that is governed by other statutory or regulatory regimes. For instance, firms using copyright law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to limit competitors’ ability to alter or repair products, or labor or entry issues that might be governed by licensure or similar laws.

Examples of past TOTM symposia are available here.

‘New Voices’ Writing Competition

We are happy to announce an open call for symposium submissions as part of a “new voices” writing competition. The competition is open to any untenured academic or aspiring academic (including students and fellows). Submissions should be lightly formatted and lightly footnoted and submitted as a Word or Google Doc document; hyperlinks instead of footnotes are strongly encouraged. 

Submissions and questions should be sent to both Gus Hurwitz (ghurwitz@laweconcenter.org) and Keith Fierro Benson (kfierro@laweconcenter.org). Please submit your contribution by Tuesday, April 19.

“New Voices” submissions will be evaluated by a panel of judges comprising former FTC officials. Judges will both select papers for inclusion in the symposium and select the best submission, the author of which will receive a $2,500 prize.