Does language inserted into a Congressional Committee Report accompanying a federal appropriations bill carry the force of law? No, concluded the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit yesterday in Northwest Environmental Defense Center v. Bonneville Power Association, concluding that such language could not require the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to cut off funding for the Fish Passage Center (FPC).
The case arose when Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) decided to cut off BPA funding for the FPC (as explained in this Washington Post story that alerted me to the decision). Senator Craig sought to defund the Center because it conducted research documenting the harm hydropower projects cause to salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest. So, Senator Craig stuck language instructing the BPA to cut off the Center’s funds, and transfer the monies to regional universities (ostensibly for the purpose of saving taxpayer money) into the Conference Committee report. [Ed. — Yes, this would be an example of the politically motivated suppression of science by a Republican.]
When the BPA sought to reallocate the FPC’s funding, in accordance with the report language, various environmental groups filed suit. After assuring itself that it had jurisdiction to hear the claims, the Ninth Circuit panel opinion, written by Judge Gould, explained what BPA did wrong.
BPA treated the committee report language as if the language placed a legal obligation on BPA to transfer the functions of the FPC. However, . . . committee report language unconnected to the text of an enacted statute has no binding legal import, and it was contrary to law for BPA to base its decision to transfer the FPC [funds] on its belief that “the US Congress passed legislation . . . forbid[ding] BPA from making additional obligations in support of the Fish Passage Center.”Language in the Conference Report on a given bill is nothing more than “legislative history,” the panel reasoned, and legislative history does not have legally binding effect.
The case law of the Supreme Court and our court establishes that legislative history, untethered to text in an enacted statute, has no compulsive legal effect. It was thus contrary to law for BPA to conclude, from committee report language alone, that it was bound to transfer the functions of the FPC.This decision is not only of potential environmental significance (particularly for those of us who enjoy fly-fishing for salmon and look forward to steelhead fishing in the future), but it is also interesting insofar as it suggests that federal agencies can ignore report language purporting to instruct agencies how they should spend federal appropriations. (Whether federal agencies would face political repercussions for flouting Congressional instructions in this manner is another question.)