Net Neutrality, and other FCC Initiatives Jeopardized Post-Chevron (Clay Calvert | Daniel Lyons, 7/05/24, AEIdeas)

Loper Bright is part of the Supreme Court’s broad critique of the administrative state’s power—a power perhaps best exemplified by then-President Obama’s infamous “pen and phone” strategy. Stymied by Congresses unable or unwilling to legislate, presidents from both parties increasingly used agencies to enact their policy decisions through statutory ambiguities. Chevron facilitated this end-run around the legislature by commanding courts to defer to an agency’s statutory interpretation if reasonable, even if the agency’s conclusion was not the best reading. The Major Questions Doctrine signaled the court’s discomfort with abuse of this power, and Loper Bright significantly narrows agencies’ ability to do so going forward.

Just how much agencies’ wings have been clipped is unclear. The judiciary’s job is to determine the meaning of a statute. The Court recognized that sometimes Congress intends a statute to delegate discretionary authority to an agency. And under the Skidmore doctrine, an agency’s interpretation can be persuasive evidence of a statute’s true meaning, though how persuasive depends on how convincing that interpretation is and how consistent the agency has been over time. But Loper Bright rejected Chevron’s fiction that every statutory ambiguity is a Congressional invitation for agencies to fill the gaps. Going forward, deference must be either expressed by Congress or earned by the agency, not assumed by default.

What does this mean for the FCC? The Communications Act is often difficult to read—the Supreme Court once called it a “model of ambiguity”—meaning the FCC often benefited from Chevron. In that sense, the post-Chevron era will create challenges for the agency. The recent net neutrality decision, for example, turns on the Act’s complicated distinction between “communications services” and “information services,” definitions written at the dawn of the Internet age. As I discussed earlier, one significant byproduct of Chevron was that the FCC could change its mind repeatedly about how to classify broadband—indeed, the court cited the FCC’s indecision as an example of how Chevron bred legal instability.