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In administrative law, rulemaking refers to the process that executive and independent agencies use to create, or promulgate, regulations. In general, legislatures first set broad policy mandates by passing laws, then agencies create more detailed regulations through rulemaking.
By bringing detailed scientific and other types of expertise to bear on policy, the rulemaking process has been the means by which some of the most far-reaching government regulations of the 20th century have been created. For example, science-based regulations are critical to modern programs for environmental protection, food safety, and workplace safety. However, explosive growth in regulations has fueled criticism that the rulemaking process reduces the transparency and accountability of democratic government.
Legislatures rely on rulemaking to add more detailed scientific, economic, or industry expertise to a policy -- fleshing out the broader mandates of authorizing legislation. For example, typically a legislature would pass a law mandating the establishment of safe drinking water standards, then assign an agency to develop the list of contaminants and safe levels through rulemaking.
The rise of the rulemaking process itself is a matter of political controversy. Many find that obscure and complex rulemaking tends to undercut the democratic ideal of a government that is closely watched by and accountable to its citizens.
At first blush, executive agency rulemaking appears to be an oxymoron. Executive agencies are usually charged with executing, not making, the rules. Given the scope of modern regulation, however, legislatures frequently find areas where it is impractical for lawmakers to apply the level of detail or expertise required to establish complete standards. These they delegate to agencies for follow-up rulemaking.
Common purposes of rulemaking include:
Rulemaking processes are generally designed to ensure that
Most modern rulemaking regimes have a common law tradition or a specific basic law that essentially regulates the regulators, subjecting the rulemaking process to standards of due process, transparency, and public participation.
Private rulemaking bodies, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, Java Community Process, and other technical communities, have adopted similar principles and frameworks to ensure fairness, transparency and thoroughness. While the mechanics vary, these efforts follow the same pattern of an open rulemaking record, public publication of proposals, and an opportunity for public comment on those proposals before they are finalized. (Even Wikipedia itself has followed this pattern.)
Public participation requires some official method for the agency to communicate to the public. Generally, agencies produce an official gazette, or periodical for publishing all rulemaking notice, such as the Federal Register. Once a rule is final, the language of the rule itself (not the supporting analysis or data) it is codified in the official body of regulations, such as the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
In essence, the accountability of the rulemaking system assumes that the public actually does take note of all of the notices in the Federal Register, which can run over a hundred pages per day. In practice, many industry or public advocacy lobbyists and lawyers monitor the Federal Register Table of Contents every day by email on behalf of their constituents or clients.
Public comments are the heart of the public’s ability to participate in the rulemaking process. The agency rulemaking is usually required to consider and publish a written response to all comments. Although high-profile rulemakings may include public hearings, most rulemakings are simply noticed in the Federal Register with a call for written comments by a set deadline.
Holding agencies accountable for objective, fact-based rulemaking requires maintaining a formal record of the facts and analysis behind the rule. Agencies must assemble and make public a rulemaking record that includes all information considered as part of the rulemaking process.
These records can be enormous and can easily fill scores to hundreds of boxes. Interested parties generally must travel to an agency repository to inspect and copy this record. In the United States the Federal government is moving toward posting rulemaking dockets on-line at www.regulations.gov. Supporting documentation for 37% of new rulemakings was available on-line as of August 2006. By August 2007 it was available for 80% of new rulemakings. Interested parties frequently comb through the agency’s own data to find flaws in the agency’s reasoning. Also, interested parties’ comments on the rule then become part of this record.
In the U.S., interested parties can sue to have a judge review the rulemaking process once the rule is finalized. Interested parties frequently sue the rulemaking agency, asking the court to order the agency to reconsider. For example, environmental groups may sue, claiming that the rule is too lax on industry; or industry groups may sue, claiming that the rule is too onerous.
Traditionally, courts are reluctant to step into the shoes of the technical experts and re-open the decisions made in the agency’s detailed analysis. However, courts do review whether a rulemaking meets the standards for the rulemaking process. The basis of this review by the courts may be limited to certain questions of fairness or the procedures that ensure that both sides of a dispute are treated equally before any decision making occurs or that the decision is not patently unreasonable (under Canadian law) or Wednesbury unreasonableness (under British law) or similar doctrines described below.
These powers of review of administrative decision, while often governed by statute, were originally developed out of the royal prerogative writs of English law such as the writ of mandamus and the writ of certiorari.
Thus, it is not enough to simply claim that the rulemaking agency could have done a better job. Instead, under U.S. administrative law, to ask the court to order changes in a rule, a party must argue that the rule is:
Arbitrary and capricious and/or unsupported by the record. Most frequently, objectors will argue that, even if the judge is not an expert, she can tell that there is an obvious gap in the agency’s data or analysis. A court may intervene if it finds that there is no reasonable way that the agency could have drafted the rule, given the evidence in the rulemaking record. A court may send a rule back to the agency for further analysis, generally leaving the agency to decide whether to change the rule to match the existing record or to amend the record to show how they arrived at the original rule. If a court does remand a rule back to the agency, it almost always involves an additional notice and public comment period.
Exceeds statutory authority. Frequently, opponents of a rule argue that it fails to follow the instructions of the authorizing legislation. Rules can be found to exceed statutory authority if they are too strict or too lax. If a law instructs an agency to issue regulations to ban a chemical, but the agency issues a rule that instead sets levels for safe use -- or vice versa -- a court may order the agency to issue a new rule.
Bolt of out the blue. Occasionally, interested parties argue that the final rule contains provisions that were never vetted during the public comment period. A court may intervene if it finds that there was no way that the commenting public could have anticipated the new provisions and provided comment. If so, the new provisions are said to be, in a colorful legal phrase, a 'bolt of out the blue' rather than a reasonable course correction during the rulemaking process. Frequently, agencies will vet several options during the proposed rule phase to allow for comment on the full spectrum of rules under consideration.