Federal Administrative Law: A Brief Overview

Part of LLSDC's Legislative Source Book
By Richard J. McKinney, retired Federal law librarian; also available in PDF (2018)

A Brief Explanation of Federal Administrative Law

Federal administrative law primarily concerns the powers and procedures of Federal administering agencies in relation to the public (but usually not in criminal matters). It is Congress that grants general and specific powers to various Federal agencies through enabling legislation as well the general laws for their fair and orderly administration. These executive powers are often quasi-legislative in nature (via rules and regulations applicable to a class of persons or organizations) or quasi-judicial in nature (via orders, adjudications and decisions involving particular persons or organizations). The given powers are also subject to judicial review and interpretation.

As industry and technology grew over the past 125 years Congress deemed it appropriate to delegate the details of administering laws to protect the public or enhance fairness to executive departments or independent regulatory agencies. Unlike the heads of executive departments and agencies the heads of independent regulatory agencies generally do not serve at the pleasure of the President or have their rules and legislative recommendations reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) [see 44 U.S.C. 3502(5), 12 U.S.C. 250, E.O. 12866 Sec. 3(b) and OMB Cir. A-19]. The first independent regulatory agency was the Interstate Commerce Commission established in 1887 (the ICC was abolished in 1995; see history of agency changes at the end of the annual U.S. Government Manual).

Current Major Federal Government Regulatory Agencies

(as selected in the Federal Regulatory Directory by CQ Press/Sage, 2014)

Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC.gov) (est. 1973; 3 commissioners, 7 yr. term; only 2 from same party)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.gov) (est. 1970; headed by an administrator who is a cabinet officer)

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.gov) (est. 1965; 5 commissioners; 5 yr. terms, only 3 from same party)

Federal Communications Commission (FCC.gov) (est. 1934; 5 commissioners; 5 yr. terms, only 3 from same party)

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC.gov) (est. 1933; 5 board of directors; 6 yr. terms, only 3 from same party; non-appropriated)

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC.gov) (est. 1977; 5 commissioners; 5 yr. terms)

Federal Reserve System, Board of Governors of the (FederalReserve.gov) (est. 1913; 7 governors, 14 yr. terms, non-appropriated)

Federal Trade Commission (FTC.gov) (est. 1914; 5 commissioners; 7 yr. terms; only 3 in same party)

Food and Drug Administration (FDA.gov) (est. 1906; headed by 1 commissioner; under HHS Dept.)

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB.gov) (est. 1935; 1 Gen. Counsel - 4 yr. term & 5 other members - 5 yr. terms)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.gov) (est. 1970; 1 Asst. Secretary; under Labor Dept.)

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC.gov) (est. 1934; 5 commissioners; 5 yr. terms; only 3 from same party; non-appropriated)

General Federal Agency Directories

A-Z Index of U.S. Government Department and Agencies on USA.gov

List of federal agencies in the United States (Wikipedia entry)

United States Government Manual on GovInfo (annual or biennial from 1997)

Federal Regulatory Directory  (book by CQ Press/Sage, 2014)



Major Federal Administrative and Rulemaking Laws

Federal Register Act, 1935 (44 USC § 1501 et seq.). Provides that all agency rules be published in the daily Federal Register; 1937 amdt established the CFR. By rule since mid-1970’s preambles with explanation & comment summaries are required.

Administrative Procedure Act, 1946 (5 USC § 551 et seq.) & 5 USC § 701 et seq. - Judicial Review, et. al.). Sets up rulemaking process, admin procedures, adjudication, hearings, etc. (required prop. rules).

Freedom of Information Act, 1966 (5 USC § 552). Ensures public access, by request, to government records with various exempted info categories.

Privacy Act of 1974 (5 USC § 552a). Establishes fair agency practices for maintaining personally identifiable information.

Government in the Sunshine Act, 1976 (5 USC § 552b). Requires open and announced government agency meetings with some exceptions.

Regulatory Flexibility Act, 1980 (5 USC § 601 et seq.). Requires regulatory analysis of agency proposed rules (impact on small business); semi-annual reg. agenda. See also notes to § 601 for related laws and executive orders.

Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 / 1995 (44 USC § 3501 et seq.). Requires agency rules/info collection activities be sent to OMB first & reduce paperwork burden.

Congressional Review Act, 1996 (5 USC § 801 et seq.). Requires agencies to submit agency rules to Congress for 30 day review & possible disapproval.

Some Other Federal Administrative Laws

Federal Tort Claims Act, 1946 (28 USC § 2671 et seq.). Permits private parties to sue U.S. in federal court for tort claims committed by gov. officials.

Federal Advisory Committee Act, 1972 (5 USC App.). Places limits on the governing & establishment of federal advisory committees

Equal Access to Justice Act, 1980 (5 USC § 504), et al. Provides payment by U.S. to prevailing parties of fees/costs in agency adjudications / courts.

Negotiated Rulemaking Act of 1990 (5 USC § 561 et seq.). Allows agency heads to establish negotiated rulemaking committees to help formulate a rule.

Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (2 USC 1501 et seq.). Limits Federal mandates on state & local governments without providing funding.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Act of 1998 (28 USC 651 et seq.). Authorizes and encourages U.S. district courts to use ADR process and arbitrators.

Types of Federal Agency Rules & Notices Published in the Federal Register

Rules and Regulations – Finalized agency rules – text placed in annual CFR with FR cites
- - Interim & Interim Final Rules – Temporary rules with request for comment (speed usually needed)
- - Direct Final Rules – Finalized agency rules with request for comments & possible rule withdrawal

Proposed Rules – Proposed rules published in FR with request for comments (30 – 90 days) (NPRM)
- - Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) – Notice requesting comments for possible rule
- - Negotiated Rulemaking Documents – Notices regarding negotiated rulemaking committees

Petition for Rulemaking, Petition Findings – requests, usually from non-governmental bodies

Notices – Section published in FR for certain agency announcements on meetings, applications, grants, decisions, authority delegations, information collection activities, policy statements, etc.

Presidential Documents – Proclamations, Orders, & Memos placed either before Rules or after Notices

Reader Aids and Other Material – Info on publisher, subscriptions, table of contents, CFR parts affected, customer service, electronic research, CFR parts affected during current month, list of new laws

See also Federal Register Document Drafting Handbook.
And see next day’s Fed. Register items at its Public Inspection site (items increase throughout day).

Federal Rules, Non-Rules and Other Terminology

Delegated Authority – Congressionally delegated powers to agencies; agency delegations to staff/others

Legislative Rules – Finalized, binding rules authorized by Congress with notice/comment process

Procedural Rules – Non-substantive rules that need not go through notice/comment process

Retroactive Rules – Finalized or adjudicative rules having retroactive effect permitted by law/courts

Interpretive Rules – Non-binding agency interpretations/opinions of statutes; may persuade courts

Informal Rules – Non-binding, non-enforceable agency guidances, policy statements, letters (FR notice)

Preamble to Rules – Required info with rules – Agency, Action, Summary, Dates, Addresses, Supp. Info

Orders, Decisions – Binding pronouncements by agency officials concerning individuals/companies

Adjudications – Disposition of individual claims by gov. officials after administrative due process

Administrative Law Judge – presides at admin. hearings, takes testimony, makes determinations of fact..

Judicial Review – Court review of agency rules/decisions for authority, due process, standing, etc.See related CRS report.

See also:
Counting Regulation: An Overview of Rulemaking, Types of Federal Regulations, and Pages in the Federal Register, by Maeve P. Carey, Congressional Research Service report # R43056.

Researching Federal Regulations on the Internet (Free & Commercial)

Federal Register on GovInfo (from 1936 - browse, search, retrieve by cite from 1995, pdf authenticated docs)

FederalRegister.gov (from 1994 - browse by agency, advance search, links to GovInfo docs)

Federal Register (1936-93) & CFR (1938-95) via Library of Congress/HeinOnline (browse/print/downl)

Code of Federal Regulations on GovInfo (annual from 1997; browse, search, retrieve by cite - pdf)

eCFR.gov (current CFR - browse, search, link - no pdf docs, not official or authenticated)

List of CFR Sections Affected on GovInfo (indicates changes to CFR sections by proposed & final rules)

RegInfo.gov (tracks pending regulations for OMB review with indepen. agencies exempt; see Reg Map)

Regulations.gov (central site to comment on all proposed rules & also view submitted comments)

Regulations on Justia.com (track regulations, browse by agency or date from 2005, has RSS feeds)

Research Guide to the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations on LLSDC.org

Federal Register Library on HeinOnline.org (Fed. Reg. from 1936) (CFR from 1938) (all pdf)

Federal Register and CFR on LexisAdvance.com (Fed. Reg. from 1936) (CFR from 1981) (text & pdf)

Federal Register and CFR on Westlaw.com (Fed. Reg. from 1936) (CFR from 1984) (text & pdf)

Other Commercial Services – BloombergLaw, LoisLaw, RegScan, etc.

Researching Federal Agency Orders, Decisions, Interpretations, Letters, etc.

A-Z Index of U.S. Government Agencies (dig deep) & perhaps create a custom Google search

Federal Administrative Decisions and Resources site at Pace University Law Library

Federal Administrative Decisions & Guidance on Westlaw.com

Federal Administrative Materials on LexisAdvance.com

U.S. Federal Agency Documents, Decisions, and Appeals Library on HeinOnline

Other commercial websites and publications like BloombergLaw, LoisLaw, LRP Publications, etc.

Selected Administrative Law Treatises

Administrative Law by Stein, Mitchell & Mezines, LexisNexis (six volume loose-leaf)

Administrative Law and Practice by C. H. Koch, Thomson Reuters, 2010-2023 with pocket part updates

Administrative Law and Process in a Nutshell, 5th ed. by Gellhorn & Levin, Thomson Reuters, 2006

Administrative Law and Regulatory Policy by Breyer, et. al., 9th Ed., Aspen, 2021, 

Administrative Law Treatise  by Richard J. Pierce, Aspen/Wolters Kluwer, 5th Ed. (3 vol. loose-leaf)

Federal Administrative Procedure Sourcebook, 5th ed. by Funk & Lubbers, American Bar Assn, 2016

A Guide to Federal Agency Rulemaking by Jeffrey Lubbers, American Univ., 5d ed. 2012

Selected Supreme Court Opinions on Federal Administrative Law

J.W. Hampton Jr. & Co. v. United States [276 U.S. 394 (1928)]. Held that delegation of legislative power to federal agencies is not unconstitutional so long as the agency in its exercise conforms to an “intelligible principle” of action authorized by Congress.

Panama Refining Co. v Ryan [293 U.S. 388 (1935)]. Invalidated a provision of executive regulation as Congress laid down no intelligible principle for the delegation of that power (order had also been inadvertently repealed and reinstated).

Skidmore v. Swift & Co. [323 U.S. 134 (1944)]. Held that an agency’s interpretations and rules are to be given deference according to the agency’s thoroughness of investigation, valid reasoning, consistency, and other persuasiveness.

Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe [401 U.S. 402 (1971)]. Held that agency discretionary action is subject to judicial review to determine if action was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.

Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. [467 U.S. 837 (1984)] Held that if the statute is unclear then deference goes to a permissible construction by the agency. See CRS report, Chevron Deference: A Primer.

NationsBank of N.C., N.A. v. Variable Annuity Life Insurance Co. [513 U.S. 251 (1995)]. Held that an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute was a permissible construction (variable annuities are not insurance & are incidental to banking).

Christensen et al. v. Harris County et al. [529 U.S. 576 (2000)]. Held that agency opinion letters, interpretations, guidelines, policy statements, and manuals lack the force of law and do not require deference but are to be respected if persuasive per Skidmore.

United States v. Mead Corp. [533 U.S. 218 (2001)]. Held that Chevron deference of agency lawmaking does not necessarily apply to agency decisions that have not gone through notice-and-comment rulemaking or formal adjudication.

Barnhart v. Walton  [535 U.S. 212 (2002)]. Held that Chevron deference may be applicable to a reasonable agency interpretation of an ambiguous statute with interstitial legal questions.

Talk America, Inc. v. Michigan Bell  [June 9, 2011]. Held that deference is due agency interpretations of ambiguous agency rules.

Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass'n  [Mar. 9, 2015]. Held that agencies may revise interpretations of own regs without notice-and-comment procedures.

Encino Motorcars v. Navarro  [Jun. 20, 2016]. Held that Chevron deference does not apply when a regulation is procedurally defective or lacks adequate explanation for deviation from past agency policy and thus suggests it is arbitrary and capricious.

Lucia v. SEC  [June 21, 2018] – Held that administrative law judges are inferior officers of the United States and thus must be duly appointed by President, U.S. Court or Federal agency head.

Axon Enterprise v. FTC  [April 14, 2023} - Held that certain claims can go directly to a district court for review especially if their are Constitutional issues involved like administrative law judges not be appointed by the President.

Selected Web Sites on Federal Administrative Law

ABA’s Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice at AmericanBar.org

Administrative Law at HG.org Legal Resources; also has state administrative code links

Administrative Law: Home at FSU College of Law Research Center 

Administrative Law Course Outlines at Internet Legal Resources Group (ilrg.com)

Administrative Law Research Tutorial site at Georgetown Law Library

Administrative Law Review (back issues from American University)

Federal Administrative Law site at Duke University Goodson Law Library

Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference at FALJC.org

Guide to Administrative Law site at the Law Library of Congress

National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary at NAALJ.org

Request For Hearing By Administrative Law Judge in a disability reconsideration at SocialSecurity.gov

Maintained by Rick McKinney, retired Federal law librarian.

Please email your questions or comments to the Legislative SIS.

Last updated on August 1, 2023