By Geoffrey Manne, Matt Starr & Berin Szoka
“Real lawyers read the footnotes!”—thus did Harold Feld chastise Geoff and Berin in a recent blog post about our CNET piece on the Verizon/SpectrumCo transaction. We argued, as did Commissioner Pai in his concurrence, that the FCC provided no legal basis for its claims of authority to review the Commercial Agreements that accompanied Verizon’s purchase of spectrum licenses—and that these agreements for joint marketing, etc. were properly subject only to DOJ review (under antitrust).
Harold insists that the FCC provided “actual analysis of its authority” in footnote 349 of its Order. But real lawyers read the footnotes carefully. That footnote doesn’t provide any legal basis for the FTC to review agreements beyond a license transfer; indeed, the footnote doesn’t even assert such authority. In short, we didn’t cite the footnote because it is irrelevant, not because we forgot to read it.
First, a reminder of what we said:
The FCC’s review of the Commercial Agreements accompanying the spectrum deal exceeded the limits of Section 310(d) of the Communications Act. As Commissioner Pai noted in his concurring statement, “Congress limited the scope of our review to the proposed transfer of spectrum licenses, not to other business agreements that may involve the same parties.” We (and others) raised this concern in public comments filed with the Commission. Here’s the agency’s own legal analysis — in full: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” There’s not even an accompanying footnote.
Even if Harold were correct that footnote 349 provides citations to possible sources of authority for the FCC to review the Commercial Agreements, it remains irrelevant to our claim: The FCC exceeded its authority under 310(d) and asserted its authority under 310(d) without any analysis or citation. Footnote 349 begins with the phrase, “[a]side from Section 310(d)….” It is no surprise, then, that the footnote contains no analysis of the agency’s authority under that section.
The FCC’s authority under 310(d) is precisely what is at issue here. The question was raised and argued in several submissions to the Commission (including ours), and the Commission is clearly aware of this. In paragraph 142 of the Order, the agency notes the parties’ objection to its review of the Agreements: “Verizon Wireless and the Cable Companies respond that the Commission should not review the Commercial Agreements because… the Commission does not have authority to review the agreements.” That objection, rooted in 310(d), is to the Commission extending its transaction review authority (unquestionably arising under only 310(d)) beyond that section’s limits. The Commission then answers the parties’ claim in the next paragraph with the language we quoted: “The Commission has authority to review the Commercial Agreements and to impose conditions to protect the public interest.” By doing so without reference to other statutory language, it seems clear that the FCC’s unequivocal, unsupported statement of authority is a statement of authority under 310(d).
This is as it should be. The FCC’s transaction review authority is limited to Section 310(d). Thus if the agency were going to review the Commercial Agreements as part of the transfer, the authority to do so must come from 310(d) alone. But 310(d) on its face provides no authority to review anything beyond the transfer of spectrum. If the Commission wanted to review the Commercial Agreements, it needed to provide analysis on how exactly 310(d), despite appearances, gives it the authority to do so. But the Commission does nothing of the sort.
But let’s be charitable, and consider whether footnote 349 provides relevant analysis of its authority to review the Commercial Agreements under any statute.
The Commission did cite to several other sections of the Communications Act in the paragraph (145) that includes footnote 349. But that paragraph relates not to the review of the transaction itself (or even the ability of the parties to enter into the Commercial Agreements) but to the Commission’s authority to ensure that Verizon complies with the conditions imposed on the transaction, and to monitor the possible effects the Agreements have on the market after the fact. Three of the four statutes cited in the footnote (47 U.S.C. §§ 152, 316, & 548) don’t appear to give the Commission authority for anything related this transaction. Only 47 U.S.C. § 201 is relevant. But having authority to monitor a wireless provider’s post-transaction business practices is far different from having the authority to halt or condition the transaction itself before its completion because of concerns about ancillary agreements. The FCC cites no statutes to support this authority—because none exist.
This is not simply a semantic distinction. By claiming authority to review ancillary agreements in the course of reviewing license transfers, the Commission gains further leverage over companies seeking license transfer approvals, putting more of the companies’ economic interests at risk. This means companies will more likely make the “voluntary” concessions (with no opportunity for judicial scrutiny) that they would not otherwise have made—or they might not enter into deals in the first place. As we (Geoff and Berin) said in our CNET article, “the FCC has laid down its marker, letting all future comers know that its bargaining advantage extends well beyond the stack of chips Congress put in front of it.” In merger reviews, the house has a huge advantage, and it is magnified if the agency can expand the scope of activity under its review.
Thus Harold is particularly off-base when he writes that “[g]iven that there is no question that the FCC has authority to entertain complaints going forward, and certainly has authority to monitor how the markets under its jurisdiction are developing, it is hard to understand the jurisdictional argument even as the worship of empty formalism.” This misses the point entirely. The difference between the FCC reviewing the Commercial Agreements in deciding whether to permit the license transfer (or demand concessions) and regulating the Agreements after the fact is no mere “formalism.”
Regardless, if the FCC were actually trying to rely on these other sections of the Communications Act for authority to review the Commercial Agreements, it would have cited them in Paragraph 143, where it asserted that authority—not two paragraphs later in a footnote supporting the agency’s order assigning post-transaction monitoring tasks to the Wireline Competition Bureau. Moreover, none of these alleged assertions of authority amounts to an analysis of the FCC’s jurisdiction. Given the debate that took place in the record over the issue, a simple list of statutes purporting to confer jurisdiction would be utterly insufficient in response. Not as insufficient as an unadorned, conclusory statement of authority without even such a list of statutes (what the FCC actually did) — but awfully close.
We stand by our claim that the Commission failed to cite — let alone analyze — its authority to review the Commercial Agreements in this transaction. The FCC’s role in transaction reviews has been hotly contested, at least partially inspiring the FCC Process Reform Act that passed this spring in the House. Given the controversy around the issue, the Commission should have gone out of its way to justify its assertion of authority, citing precedent and making a coherent argument — in other words, engaging in legal analysis. At least, that’s what “real lawyers” would do.
But in real politik, perhaps it was naïve of us to expect more analysis from the agency that tried to justify net neutrality regulation by pointing to a deregulatory statute aimed at encouraging the deployment of broadband and claiming that somewhere in there, perhaps, hidden between the lines, was the authority the agency needed—but which Congress never actually gave it.
When the FCC plays fast and loose with the law in issuing regulations, someone will likely sue, thus forcing the FCC to justify itself to a court. On net neutrality, the D.C. Circuit seems all but certain to strike down the FCC’s Open Internet Order for lacking any firm legal basis. But when the FCC skirts legal limits on its authority in merger review, the parties to a merger have every incentive to settle and keep their legal qualms to themselves; even when the FCC blocks a merger, the parties usually calculate that t isn’t worth suing or trying to make a point about principle. Thus, through merger review, the FCC gets away with regulation by stealth—footnotes about legal authority be damned. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly worry about the FCC’s expansive claims of authority as a “Trojan Horse,” even when they applaud the FCC’s ends. We know Harold doesn’t like this transaction, but why doesn’t he worry about where the FCC is taking us?