Reassessing the Mythology of Magnuson-Moss: A Call to Revive Section 18 Rulemaking at the FTC

62 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2021 Last revised: 16 Nov 2022

See all articles by Kurt Walters

Kurt Walters

Harvard University, Harvard Law School; Government of the United States of America - Federal Trade Commission

Date Written: July 8, 2021

Abstract

America faces twin crises of metastasizing corporate power and foundering government capacity to respond. Calls for fundamental reforms to the economic system have grown louder as corporate consolidation reaches record levels and “informational capitalism” systematically shifts power from individuals to large, data-rich firms. Americans are left vulnerable to “dark patterns” that extract customers’ wealth, to gig work companies that siphon tips away from workers, and to algorithmic decision-making that exhibits racial and gender bias. But many rightfully doubt that America’s elected branches of government remain functional enough to handle these emerging challenges, and the Supreme Court continues to impede efforts that Congress and the President do undertake.

The Federal Trade Commission is well-positioned to step into this breach. Section 18 of the FTC Act grants the agency the authority to issue new consumer protection rules to police against unfair or deceptive business tactics, backed by tough penalties and consumer redress. Yet, this power sat virtually dormant for the past thirty-eight years after a “Reagan Revolution” at the agency decisively ended its rulemaking activity. For the first time in decades, a majority of FTC Commissioners supports using this tool, but long-unchallenged received wisdom stands in the way. This common narrative holds that Congress saddled the FTC with almost impossibly onerous “Magnuson-Moss” procedural requirements for rulemaking in reaction to overbroad and politically unpopular regulations. This article argues that the conventional story is mistaken. A review of the history, statutory text, and judicial constructions of section 18 show that this pessimistic view confuses a historical decline in rulemaking—which was driven by non-statutory factors including an ascendant corporate lobby, changing congressional pressures, and a deregulatory ideological moment—with supposed flaws in section 18.

Puncturing the mythology that has grown up around the Magnuson-Moss Act provides a more clear-eyed view of the FTC’s authorities. Doing so makes apparent that the Commission can—and should—pick back up its powerful tool of consumer protection rulemaking. Future rules can rein in marketplace misconduct such as unfair privacy abuses, deceptive online “drip pricing,” and much more. Reinvigorating the FTC’s regulatory program can restore the agency as a champion of American consumers and a cornerstone of an administrative state able to counterbalance dominant corporations and establish a more just economy.

Suggested Citation

Walters, Kurt, Reassessing the Mythology of Magnuson-Moss: A Call to Revive Section 18 Rulemaking at the FTC (July 8, 2021). Harvard Law & Policy Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3875970 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3875970

Kurt Walters (Contact Author)

Harvard University, Harvard Law School ( email )

United States

Government of the United States of America - Federal Trade Commission ( email )

600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20580
United States

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