April 18, 2019

Regulatory Guidance: White House Puts the Squeeze On

Disdain for the “Administrative State” is an article of faith among conservatives – and this Politico article discusses a recent OMB memo that’s likely to be music to their ears. Here’s an excerpt:

The White House on Thursday moved to curb the power of federal regulators by directing them to submit nonbinding guidance documents to the budget office for review, a step that could slow down the enactment of any rule with a potentially large impact on the economy. A memo from acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought would vastly broaden Congress’s ability to reject such guidance, subjecting the documents to the same scrutiny as regulations that carry the force of law.

The move is the latest salvo in a war waged by corporations and their Republican allies in government against what they view as backdoor rulemaking: agencies issuing regulatory documents that don’t go through the formal notice-and-comment process but can still be used as a cudgel against certain behavior.

The memo will have a potentially sweeping impact on agencies throughout the government including independent regulators like the Federal Reserve and the SEC. It calls on the agencies to regularly notify the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs of upcoming guidance, along with determinations of whether it qualifies as “major” — the threshold for notifying Congress under the Congressional Review Act. Any guidance document deemed major by OIRA would need to be sent to Congress, which would then have the ability to strike it down under the review act, a law that gives lawmakers a short window to roll back a rule.

Unlike the Trump Administration’s “2 rule repeals for each new rule” policy, this memo also covers SEC actions.  Over on “Radical Compliance,” the memo has Matt Kelly fired up:

Compliance professionals should be very wary of what the Trump White House is trying to do here. In theory, restrained rulemaking is a reasonable idea — but time and again, we’ve seen this president and his sycophants in the White House playing with forces they’re too ignorant to use, bollixing up life for the rest of us.

For example, compliance officers of a certain age can remember the summer of 2008, and the feverish, improvisational rulemaking banking regulators tried back then to stave off the financial crisis. You’d really want OIRA review in the middle of something like that? You’d want Congress slowing down the process with 60-day approval windows?

In the real world, of course, if another crisis were to come along, you could bet your mortgage payment that the Trump Administration and Congress would grant some emergency stay of OIRA review, so regulators could move more quickly — and be left as the scapegoats, should the crisis explode anyway.

This isn’t the first time the Trump Administration has moved to curtail what it views as “rulemaking by guidance” – in 2017, former AG Jeff Sessions banned the DOJ from issuing guidance purporting to “create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch.”

ESG: Trump Executive Order May Signal ERISA Fiduciaries to Watch Their Step

Last week was a big week for corporate America.  In addition to the OMB memo, President Trump issued an executive order that contains a section directing the Secretary of Labor  to  “complete a review of available data filed with the Department of Labor by retirement plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) in order to identify whether there are discernible trends with respect to such plans’ investments in the energy sector.”

That sounds innocuous enough, but this Davis Polk blog suggests that something more significant may be afoot:

While the section does not directly address environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure, it restates the definition of materiality from the U.S. Supreme Court case, TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc., and reiterates a company’s fiduciary duties to its shareholders to strive to maximize shareholder return, consistent with the long-term growth of the company.

This order comes on the heels of last week’s U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on ESG Principles in Investing and the Role of Asset Managers, Proxy Advisors and Other Intermediaries, as well as ongoing activity at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission level, with certain institutional investors agitating for additional ESG disclosure requirements.

The blog says that while the order is silent about how the study might be used, it may well serve as the starting point for a crackdown on plan fiduciaries’ ESG activism.  One “obvious use” of the study’s results could be to enforce the DOL’s April 2018 guidance prohibiting plan fiduciaries from focusing on ESG factors “solely to benefit the greater societal good.”

SEC Staff Guidance: A “Secret Garden” of Private Law?

You know who else has some issues with regulatory guidance? SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce. In a recent speech, Commissioner Peirce expressed concern about the extent to which the SEC Staff provides non-public guidance about unresolved regulatory questions. Here’s an excerpt:

Some requests for clarification or guidance are inappropriate for handling through a time-consuming process that results in a published response. Indeed, as a Commissioner, I hope that the staff is engaging productively and responsively with market participants. I would not want to see this engagement become so burdensome to either staff or market participants that it discourages people from seeking informal guidance or the staff from providing it.

However, when staff provides non-public guidance, Professor Davis’s concerns become much more pronounced, and I believe that there is a line that can be crossed where non-public staff guidance goes from being merely helpful “l-o-r-e” lore to something that is more akin to secret law that, for all practical purposes, binds at least some (though perhaps not all) market participants without any opportunity for review or appeal.

Commissioner Pierce suggests that private interactions between the Staff and private parties in certain areas have created a “secret garden” of guidance that raises questions of fairness & transparency. Peirce isn’t suggesting eliminating the practice of providing private guidance, but does see a need to “take down the walls of the secret gardens at the SEC, or at least to make doorways into these gardens, so that the public can get a glimpse inside, assess the quality of what is growing within, and hold us accountable for what is found there.”

John Jenkins