Executive Summary

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce undertook an investigation of the sue and settle process because of the growing number of complaints by the business community that it was being entirely shut out of regulatory decisions by key federal agencies. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been leaders in settling—rather than defending—cases brought by advocacy groups, other agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Commerce, have also agreed to this tactic.

As discussed in our report Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors, we found that under this sue and settle process, EPA chose at some point not to defend itself in lawsuits brought by special interest advocacy groups at least 60 times between 2009 and 2012.[1] In each case, it agreed to settlements on terms favorable to those groups. These settlements directly resulted in EPA agreeing to publish more than 100 new regulations,[2] many of which impose compliance costs in the tens of millions and even billions of dollars.[3]

Lack of Agency Transparency On Sue and Settle Cases

We also found that when EPA was asked by Congress to provide information about the notices of intent to sue received by the agency or the petitions for rulemaking served on EPA by private parties, the agency could not—or would not—provide the information. When such lawsuits were initiated, EPA does not disclose the notice of the lawsuit or its filing until a settlement agreement had been worked out with the private parties and filed with the court. As a result, court orders were entered, binding the agency to undertake a specific rulemaking within a specific and usually very short time period, notwithstanding whether the agency actually had sufficient time to perform the obligations imposed by the court order. In response to Congress, EPA made it clear that it is “unable to accommodate this [congressional] request to make all petitions, notices, and requests for agency action publicly accessible in one location on the Internet.”[1] Specifically, “the EPA does not have a centralized process to individually characterize and sort all the different types of notices of intent the agency receives.”[2] Imagine what would happen if a state or local government, a school district, or a publicly traded company claimed to have no knowledge about lawsuits brought against it, the number of cases settled by its lawyers, or the number of agreements that obligated it to undertake extensive new action? It is unimaginable that such an entity would be able to claim ignorance of lawsuits that significantly impact it or to be unable to provide its citizens, customers, and regulatory agencies with required information. And yet, the position of EPA has been that it would not be bothered to track settlements that impose significant new rules and requirements on the country or to notify the public about them in any systematic fashion.[3]  


Sue and Settle Skirts Procedural Safeguards On the Rulemaking Process

The practice of agencies entering into voluntary agreements with private parties to issue specific rulemaking requirements also severely undercuts agency compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act. The Administrative Procedure Act is designed to promote transparency and public participation in the rulemaking process. Because the substance of a sue and settle agreement has been fully negotiated between the agency and the advocacy group before the public has any opportunity to see it—even in those situations where the agency allows public comment on the draft agreement—the outcome of the rulemaking is essentially set. Sue and settle allows EPA to avoid the normal protections built into the rulemaking process, such as review by OMB, reviews under several executive orders, and reviews by the public and the regulated community. Further, the principles of federalism are also flagrantly ignored when EPA uses the conditions in sue and settle agreements to set aside state-administered programs, such as the Regional Haze program. With no public input, EPA binds itself to the demands of a private entity with special interests that may be adverse to the public interest, especially in the areas of project development and job creation. Sue and settle activities deny the public its most basic of all rights in the regulatory process: the right to weigh in on a proposed regulatory decision before agency action occurs.


Sue and Settle Creates Tension Between the Branches of Government

At its heart, the sue and settle issue is a situation in which the executive branch expands the authority of agencies at the expense of congressional oversight. This occurs with at least the implicit cooperation of the courts, which typically rubber stamp proposed settlement agreements even though they enable private parties to dictate agency policy. Congress is harmed because its control over appropriations diminishes. Sue and settle deals (and not Congress) increasingly are what drive an agency’s budget concerns. Additionally, the implementation of congressionally directed policies is now reprioritized by court orders that the agency asks the court to issue. Once the court approves the consent decree or settlement agreement, EPA is free to tell Congress “we are acting under court order and we must publish a new regulation.”


Sue and Settle Migrates To Other Statutes?

A major concern is that the sue and settle tactic, which has been so effective in removing control over the rulemaking process from Congress—and placing it instead with private parties under the supervision of federal courts—will spread to other complex statutes that have statutorily imposed dates for issuing regulations, such as Dodd-Frank or Obamacare. On April 22, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which has been very active in sue and settle cases, issued an order in a Food Safety Modernization Act case that sets in motion a new process to bring sue and settle actions under Section 706 of the Administrative Procedure Act. In Center for Food Safety v. Hamburg,[1] the court recognized a statutorily imposed deadline, but also recognized that food safety is not always served by rushing a regulation to finality. In this instance, the court ordered the parties to “arrive at a mutually acceptable schedule” because “it will behoove the parties to attempt to cooperate on this endeavor, as any decision by the court will necessarily be arbitrary. The parties are hereby ORDERED to meet and confer, and prepare a joint written statement setting forth proposed deadlines, in detail sufficient to form the basis of an injunction.” With a new structure in place that uses the Administrative Procedure Act as a basis for citizen suits, private interest groups and agencies could—without use of any other citizen suit provision—negotiate private arrangements for how an agency will proceed with a new regulation.


The Importance of Fixing the Sue and Settle Problem

Why is it so important to fix the sue and settle process? Congress’s ability to act on or undertake oversight of the executive branch is diminished and perhaps eliminated through the private agreements between agencies and private parties. Rulemaking in secret, a process that Congress abandoned 65 years ago when it passed the Administrative Procedure Act, is dangerous because it allows private parties and willing agencies to set national policy out of the light of public scrutiny and the procedural safeguards of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Perhaps the most significant impact of these sue and settle agreements is that by freely giving away its discretion in order to satisfy private parties, an agency uses congressionally appropriated funds to achieve the demands of private parties. This happens even though there are congressional appropriations specifying the use of such funds. In essence, the agency intentionally transforms itself from an independent actor that has discretion to perform duties in a manner best serving the public interest into an actor subservient to the binding terms of the settlement agreements. The magnitude and serious consequences of the sue and settle problem have recently been recognized by at least one court, when it set aside a sue and settle agreement that would “promulgate a substantial and permanent amendment” to an agency rule.[2]


The Most Effective Solution to Sue and Settle Lies With Congress

In the final analysis, Congress is also to blame for letting the sue and settle process take on a life free of congressional review. Most of the sue and settle lawsuits were filed as citizen suits authorized under the various environmental statutes.[3] Because citizen suit provisions were included within the environmental titles of the U.S. Code, Congress placed jurisdiction and oversight of citizen suits with congressional authorizing committees rather than with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Despite the fact that the sole purpose of citizen suits is to grant access to the federal courts, which is the primary jurisdiction of the Judiciary committees, jurisdiction was instead placed in committees that had no expertise in the subject matter. Accordingly, no meaningful oversight has been conducted in more than four decades over the use and abuse of citizen suit activity, such as sue and settle.

Fortunately, however, in 2012, the House Judiciary Committee began looking at the abuses of the sue and settle process. It introduced the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act of 2012, which the House passed as part of a larger bill. Under the bill, before the agency and outside groups can file a proposed consent decree or settlement agreement with a court, the proposed consent decree or settlement has to be published in the Federal Register for 60 days to allow for public comment. Also, affected parties would be afforded an opportunity to intervene prior to the filing of the consent decree or settlement.

On April 11, 2013, the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate as S. 714, and in the House as H.R. 1493. It is a strong bill that would implement these and other important common-sense changes. Passage of this legislation will close the massive sue and settle loophole in our regulatory process.

[1] Center for Food Safety v. Hamburg, No. C 12-4529 PJH, slip op. at 10 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 22, 2013).

[2] Conservation Northwest v. Sherman, No. 11-35729, slip op. at 15 (9th Cir. Apr. 25, 2013) (“Because the consent decree in this case allowed the Agencies effectively to promulgate a substantial and permanent amendment to [a regulation] without having followed statutorily required procedures, it was improper.”).

[3] See, e.g., Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. § 7604; Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1365; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. § 6972.


[1] Letter from Arvin Ganesan, EPA Associate Administrator for the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, to Hon. Fred Upton, Chairman, House Committee on Energy and Commerce (June 12, 2012) at 2.

[2] Id.

[3] It is our understanding that EPA has very recently begun to disclose on its website the notices of intent to sue that it receives from outside parties. While this is a welcome development, this important disclosure needs to be required by statute and not just be a voluntary measure. Moreover, agencies such as EPA also need to provide public notice of the filing of a complaint and/or petitions for rulemaking.


[1] A description of the methodology the Chamber used to identify sue and settle cases is discussed in Appendices A and B of this report.

[2] See pages 43–45 for the list of rules and agency actions resulting from sue and settle cases.

[3] For a description of the costs of selected rules, see discussion and notes on pages 14–22.