Big Gov and Big Biz. Are they holding hands, shaking hands, or boxing? It depends on the day and the issue. But while Big Biz hardly seems like a sympathetic character, Big Gov always has the upper hand.
Remember Arthur Andersen? Perhaps not. It used to be the biggest accounting firm around. Then the Justice Department went after it with little proof but lots of gusto. The megalith firm fought the law, and the law won (temporarily). The Department of Justice obtained a criminal conviction against the firm that was the equivalent of a death sentence: the company lost its reputation and therefore lost its clients. By the time the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, it was a pyrrhic victory for the defunct firm.
Through Arthur Andersen, companies learned that no matter how big you are, the government is bigger. When the government comes after you, stand down and don’t fight.
Do you care that Big Gov picks on Big Biz? While Big Gov is busy starting wars of attrition with Big Biz, it is building out its bureaucratic infrastructure — all while sharpening a strategy that means it can’t lose. And that’s everyone’s concern. Companies regularly acquiesce to government demands and pave the way for what I’ll call enforcement creep — de facto lawmaking whereby government agencies use the threat of costly litigation, the threat of multiple agency investigations, or the threat of Arthur Andersen’s sad fate to gain settlements with defendants, even when the companies haven’t committed any significant wrongs.
These settlements often exceed the scope of existing laws and regulations, more accurately reflecting what the agencies want, not necessarily what the law requires. Agencies thus further their policy initiatives — including those not defined by statute or by implementing regulations — on an ad hoc basis, outside the purview of traditional lawmaking.
Here are two examples of how enforcement creep plays out.
In May 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a $96.6 million settlement against student loan servicer Sallie Mae (now Navient Solutions). The agreement was to settle allegations that the company failed to reduce interest rates on loans to military members as required under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). In the settlement agreement, Sallie Mae didn’t admit to any wrongdoing (a typical agreement term) but nonetheless agreed to pay fines and restitution. It also agreed to institute new measures to ensure compliance with the SCRA.
Here’s the kicker: the new measures require that Sallie Mae not only comply with current law, but go several steps further. That is, current law puts the burden on service members to seek loan reduction relief, but the consent order shifts the burden to Sallie Mae. It requires that the company presume loan reduction requests based upon service member actions (such as a request from the service member for another form of relief). It also requires the company to undertake other measures proactively to seek service member rate reductions (such as creating an online intake form and training designated customer service representatives to advise on SCRA protections).
It probably seemed to government regulators that the loan servicer, instead of the service member, was in a better position to bear the burden of looking after SCRA rights. And so they shifted that burden through an investigation and settlement with a major loan servicer — as opposed to going through the more public rulemaking process and requesting that Congress revise the law.
Here’s another example. In September 2014, Costco settled charges with the Environmental Protection Agency. The government authorities alleged the company violated the Clean Air Act by failing to repair refrigerant leaks and failing to keep adequate records of the servicing of its refrigeration equipment. The consent decree, in which Costco admitted no liability, requires that the company cut its leak rate to almost half the legal maximum over the next three years. (The decree requires Costco to achieve corporate-wide average leak rates of 19.1 percent; the regulations, 40 C.F.R. § 82.156 and EPA guidance, provide a legal leak rate maximum for commercial refrigeration equipment of 35 percent.)
The agreement requires the company to retrofit, replace, and install systems in a manner that similarly appears to surpass legal standards. Comparing the EPA guidance with the consent decree, the decree looks like a big leap from current regulatory requirements. The settlement agreement terms sound a lot more like policy objectives, in keeping with the EPA’s GreenChill initiative, than legal standards.
Give us your lunch money
It’s okay to encourage companies voluntarily to adopt more rigorous environmental standards than the law requires, but when a company’s decision not to comply can result in steep sanctions, the decision is no longer voluntary. So when the government looks for excuses to impose extralegal preferences, it starts to sound less like cheerleading and more like bullying. Think of it this way: it is still legal to encrypt your smartphone, but would you feel free to do so if you knew that the police were investigating everyone pursuing that form of privacy?
Where companies don’t do anything wrong, or where the wrongs committed pale in comparison to the punishment exacted, why do they settle with the feds? It has a lot to do with cost-benefit analysis. Rational parties will assess whether it makes financial sense to defend their positions in protracted litigation or to settle and move on. Since legal defense can be very costly, accepting a reasonable penalty that frees time and economic resources may seem like the best option. It’s similar to the pressure on someone charged with a serious crime, even when they are innocent, to plea bargain rather than face the expense of a long legal defense and the real possibility of a wrongful conviction. Plus, these companies don’t want to face significant bad press or a conviction that could effectively shutter operations. So Big Biz stands down; Big Gov expands its legal reach by applying an extralegal strategy of legislation by threat.
The companies entering into settlement agreements will obviously have to adopt the terms of those agreements or be in breach. But they are not the only ones looking carefully at applying settlement terms. Other companies with similar business practices will recognize a world of limited choices: adopt the government’s policy objectives or prepare for your time in the ring. New de facto law is made outside the courts, outside Congress, and entirely outside the public sphere. The extent to which Big Biz could once serve as a check on Big Gov fades into history, as enforcement creep becomes the new reality.