CFPB’s eRegulations tool promises to help users navigate federal regulations

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently introduced a new online tool, “eRegulations,” designed to make agency regulations easier to understand.  The pilot project uses CFPB's Electronic Fund Transfers rule (Regulation E), 12 C.F.R. Part 1005, as an example.  According to the CFPB’s Dan Sokolov and David Cassidy,[1] this web-based application aims to improve the navigability of federal agency rules by providing access to final regulations published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) together with:

  • Defined terms.  On eRegulations, defined terms are accessible through a text link, which brings up a sidebar on the right side of the user’s screen containing the definition with a link to the CFR section and to applicable Official Interpretations. Agencies frequently define key terms in a specific regulatory provision, forcing users browsing the regulation online to open up a separate window or tab to find the definition.  CFPB’s eRegulations provides this information on the page for the regulatory provision applying the defined term.  Notably, agency regulations may also include some terms defined by statute.  As CFPB continues to develop eRegulations and add new capabilities, contextual links to relevant provisions in the U.S. Code would be a welcome addition.
  • Official interpretations.  In the current example on eRegulations, official interpretations for some regulatory provisions are found in a supplement codified in the Code of Federal Regulations as a regulatory appendix.  The tool provides elegant and easy access to these interpretations through a noticeable yet unobtrusive inline implementation.  Here at the Administrative Conference, we’ve learned that interpretations of agency regulations are not always included in the Code of Federal Regulations, but rather are occasionally found in agency policy statements or guidance documents.[2]  Will the tool permit references to relevant agency interpretations contained in guidance documents rather than in the CFR?  I hope so. 
  • Previous, current, and future versions of the rule.  In the sidebar to the left side of the user screen, eRegulations allows users to easily browse differing final versions of a rule, including versions as they existed on a particular date entered by the user.  This feature will be especially useful where agencies regularly revise regulations, as they often do.  If widely implemented, it would also provide great benefit to legal researchers who toss their outdated copies of the CFR and so must rely on the clunky year-by-year navigation of various versions of federal regulations on FDsys or on commercial services that charge a fee for this convenience.  I’d love to see eRegulations extended to include drafts of regulations published in the Federal Register, together with any agency explanations of changes between versions. 
  • “Certain sections” of Federal Register preambles.  This attribute of eRegulations is particularly noteworthy from an administrative law perspective, as agency regulatory preambles serve valuable signaling functions for the public and for courts, and may be relied upon by courts interpreting agency regulations.[3]  This functionality doesn’t appear to be active in the current example on the site, but language on the CFPB’s GitHub project page indicates that this may be the intended use of the “section-by-section” analysis feature visible in the sidebar on the right side of the user screen.[4]  *Update 10/23: this functionality is up-and-running.  It will be interesting to see how agencies adopting the tool, including CFPB, decide which sections of the preamble to reference.  I hope they will include any preambular statements with interpretive value, such as those that offer additional explanation of key terms. 

CFPB’s eRegulations tool is open source; the project code is available in a public repository on GitHub, an online project hosting tool.  By opening eRegulations up to suggestions and improvements from the public, CFPB is allowing hands-on contribution to the debate over what sources are appropriately considered as a part of regulatory interpretation.[5]  Open sourcing also allows developers to employ the tool at other agencies and in other contexts.  Features of tool would be beneficial in a variety of other administrative law applications, such as for agency guidance documents which often contain defined terms or are revised over time.

Congratulations to the CFPB Technology & Innovation Team on the successful launch of a promising tool for improving public understanding and navigation of agency regulations.  This accomplishment builds upon the agency’s history of innovative approaches to e-rulemaking, as Whitney Patross, Counsel in CFPB’s Office of Regulations, and Cynthia Farina, Faculty Director at RegulationRoom.org, recently described at the Administrative Conference’s Social Media Workshop.          


[1] Dan Sokolov and David Cassidy, Making regulations easier to use, CFPB Blog (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/making-regulations-easier-to-use/.

[2] See Administrative Conference of the United States, Recommendation 92-2, Agency Policy Statements (adopted June 18, 1992).  The Office of Management and Budget has also recognized that guidance documents can serve “important or even critical functions in regulatory programs” as well as their role in helping the public to interpret existing law.  Office of Management and Budget, Final Bulletin for Agency Good Guidance Practices, Bulletin No. 07-02, 72 Fed. Reg. 3432, 3432 (2007).  The bulletin’s development was informed by the Conference’s Recommendation 92-2.   Id. at 3433.

[3] Kevin Stack, Interpreting Regulations, 111 Mich. L. Rev. 355, 360 n.17, 373-74 (2012).  Professor Stack comments that “it will be a relatively rare case in which the [preambular] statement of basis and purpose provides no guidance on an interpretive question, either in a specific or more general justification for the regulation.”  Id. at 394.

[4] “SECTION-BY-SECTION ANALYSES.  The notices that compose a version of the regulation contain relevant analyses of the altered sections.  We automatically pull that information and make it accessible while reading the regulation text.”  CFPB, eRegulations, eregs.github.io/eregulations/ (accessed 10/22/2013).

[5] See Stack, supra note 3 at 358-60 (discussing the lack of existing debate over “admissible sources” appropriately relied upon by those trying to interpret judicial regulations as well as differing judicial approaches to regulatory interpretation incorporating a variety of sources).

 

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