What is the Federal Register? A Thing of Beauty

Every now and then it helps to cover certain basic information. Today we will talk about the Federal Register. (I know. Soon this blog will be guest-featured on Fun with Flags. It’s not everyone who’s waiting to be discovered by Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper.) The Federal Register is, as everyone knows, a repository of recent regulations left by roving bands of regulators. It is also a treasure trove of transportation trivia. It publishes every week day and contains notices of proposed regulations, final rules, agency meetings, petitions for exemption, copyright royalty distributions for satellite transmissions, Coast Guard safety zones, airworthiness directives, and those mysterious self-regulating organizations that the Securities and Exchange Commission keeps mentioning. The Federal Register lets you find things and know things and tell other people about them. The Federal Register is a thing of beauty. Most importantly, it is legal notice to the world, to everyone from coal miners with pneumoconiosis to members of the military-industrial complex. If it’s in the Federal Register and it applies to you, it applies to you even if you don’t actually know about it.

The Office of the Federal Register, which runs the publication, describes it as the newspaper of the Federal Government. No actual news, however, is allowed. See 44 U.S.C. § 1505(b). Instead, the Federal Register contains:

(a) Proclamations and Executive Orders; Documents Having General Applicability and Legal Effect; Documents Required To Be Published by Congress. There shall be published in the Federal Register-

(1) Presidential proclamations and Executive orders, except those not having general applicability and legal effect or effective only against Federal agencies or persons in their capacity as officers, agents, or employees thereof;

(2) documents or classes of documents that the President may determine from time to time have general applicability and legal effect; and

(3) documents or classes of documents that may be required so to be published by Act of Congress.

44 U.S.C. § 1505(a). We can see from all this that an agency must publish its rulemakings, namely, its notices of proposed rulemakings and it final rules, because those have “general effect,” meaning they apply to groups of people, not to particular individuals.  Internal agency procedures do not require Federal Register publication even though they may be of general effect for agency employees.

Paragraph (c) suspends the publication requirements in the event of an attack on the continental United States. (Not sure what that means for Hawaii).

The Federal Communications Commission is a little weird. The FCC releases its documents before they get published in the Federal Register, which means if you know where to look for them you can get a head start in, for example, commenting on a rulemaking. The deadlines on the comment period don’t start until Federal Register publication, so one gains a little time, but one must watch for the Federal Register so as not to miss the comment period on a notice of proposed rulemaking. Back in the day, law firms would send paralegals to the FCC to pick up a stack of paper to see what the FCC’s releases held. Now, you can go here for, for example, satellite issues.

When I first stared practicing law, the Federal Register arrived at my old law firm printed on cheap, thin paper, bound; the savvy lawyers in the firm would check its table of contents every day to see whether there was anything to fuss about. The Federal Register will now email you its daily table of contents. You can sign up here. Later, when I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, and I knew about the things I cared about before they were published, I almost never checked it. I didn’t need to, but I should have, and I would have if I’d known about this email service. I truly believe that. Despite my otherwise shocking indifference, when the rules I worked on came out, I would wait until the people who logged and docketed were done with the Federal Register and fish them out of the recycling bin. I liked having paper copies for myself, and I’d pass extras along to the person in AST whose rule it was. It was a tangible sign you’d worked on something.

You do not need to be a lawyer to benefit from checking every day. If you wheel electrical power, you might care about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or maybe the emission rules of the Environmental Protection Agency. If you trade in securities, you might want to know what the SEC is thinking of requiring of you so you can get your comments in on any proposed regulations. As a space lawyer, I check the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial space transportation, the Federal Communications Commission for telecommunication satellites, and for remote sensing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also has notices about fisheries, lots of notices. I don’t read the ones about the fish.

Sure, there’s a regulatory slow down, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. The Federal Register still contains notices of public meetings and other interesting things that may provide helpful parallels. Also, if you start reading the table of contents now, you’ll get in the habit while it’s easy, and then, later, be one of the first to know when something does make it through.  If you are a law student taking Administrative Law you should subscribe and treat the Federal Register as a palate cleanser in between all the heavy reading.  It’s kind of like Reddit.  Sort of.

I don’t know, this whole topic might be too exciting for Fun with Flags.