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Administrative Law Research Guide   Tags: administrative law, agencies, cfr, code of federal regulations, federal register, regulations  

Last Updated: Feb 20, 2013 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Agencies and Statutes

Introduction and Summary – What is an agency?

The Executive Branch takes on the responsibility of managing the day to day business of the United States as authorized under the Constitution.  The complexity and breadth of that business is vast and requires organized units within the government to properly function.  Congress has the power to create or modify these units with the Executive Branch and fund their operation.  These are essentially agencies.  Their responsibilities, limits of authority, and methods of operation are defined by statute. 

There are two kinds of agencies: executive and independent. An example of an executive agency is the National Library of Medicine, which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Thus, on an organizational chart of HHS, the NLM will appear as an entity which is under the supervision of the Secretary of Health and Human Services.  The Social Security Administration, however, is an independent agency (as of March 31, 1995; prior to that time it was part of HHS, and its predecessor department, Health, Education, and Welfare). In another example, The National Labor Relations Board is an independent agency and is not part of the Department of Labor.  This means their activities are not accountable to a cabinet secretary or department within the Executive Branch.  Congress can imposes reporting requirements on agencies as part of its oversight authority.

Various federal agencies have the power to regulate an activity by creating rules, and adjudicating relevant issues before administrative panels in a quasi-court structure. Most agency power flows from the act (as amended) that created the Agency.  The FCC, for example, was created by the Federal Communications Act of 1934, and that act defines its regulatory purview.  The Administrative Procedure Act defines the standard procedures the Commission must use to carry out its oversight.  The Act applies to all executive and independent administrative agencies.

Most agencies issue rules, and these are published in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations (discussed below).  Their formal opinions in specific matters are documented in the reports they issue. The organization and scope of administrative reports of a commission or agency will vary with each government entity.  The precedential value of these decisions will also vary as disputes can get to the federal courts through the appeals process, or by litigants challenging the validity of rules directly in federal court.  Administrative decisions can be appealed to the federal courts under the authority of the APA.

A typical agency web site should contain the agency rules, a collection of formal and informal opinions, a docket of pending matters, reports and other publications, contact information, an FOIA reading room, and links to related sites. The coverage time for agency decisions varies, as does the interface for searching and browsing. Decisions also appear on databases in Lexis and Westlaw, usually in databases organized by legal subject.

The Federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA)

The federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) is located in the U.S. Code at 5 U.S.C. §501 et seq. The Act details authority for rulemaking, regulatory power, publication, adjudication of regulatory issues, and more. Other material relating to administrative law is at 5 U.S.C. §701 et seq. (judicial review of administrative decisions) and then at various other places in Title 5 (relating to administrative law judges).  The law came into effect in 1946 and has been amended several times since then.

General controls the APA imposes on agencies

The APA requires federal agencies to operate according to guidelines laid out in its various provisions.  This allows for a level of consistency in the way agencies are documented.  The major topics of the APA include:

  • An agency’s publication of its rules of procedure
  • The forms of publication and dissemination of administrative opinions, forms, and other documents
  • Disclosure of records under FOIA with regard to personal information
  • The Rulemaking Process
  • Agency adjudication power
  • Hearings and decisions before an agency
  • An agency’s enforcement powers and the kinds of penalties the agency can impose
  • An agency’s power to License

It is important that an agency follow the requirements of the APA as courts can invalidate an agency action when there is a material deviation from the Act’s provisions.

How Regulations Relate To Statutes

The legislation that establishes an agency is called an enabling act.  Its provisions include specific statements that detail the scope of an agency’s jurisdiction and power to regulate.  Congress may pass other acts that expand or contract an agency’s authority.  An agency can only issue rules that fall within the scope of the Congressional grant. Courts may overturn an agency’s actions that exceed the regulatory powers stated in the enabling act.

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