The Federal Communications Commission has adopted regulations that establish technical standards to govern the quality of cable television signals and that prohibit local authorities from imposing more stringent technical standards. The issue is whether in doing so the Commission has exceeded its statutory authority.
This case deals with yet another development in the ongoing efforts of federal, state, and local authorities to regulate different aspects of cable television over the past three decades. See Capital Cities Cable, Inc. v. Crisp, 467 U.S. 691, 700-705 (1984); United States v. Southwestern Cable Co., 392 U.S. 157, 161-178 (1968). With the incipient development of cable television in the 1950's and 1960's from what had been more generally known as community antenna television systems, the Federal Communications Commission began to assert regulatory authority in this area. See CATV Second Report and Order, 2 F. C. C. 2d 725 (1966). In 1972, the Commission first asserted authority over technical aspects of cable television and devised technical standards to govern the transmission of broadcast signals by cable, though without pre-empting regulation of similar matters by state or local franchising authorities. Cable Television Report and Order, 36 F. C. C. 2d 143, on reconsideration, 36 F. C. C. 2d 326 (1972), aff'd sub nom. American Civil Liberties Union v. FCC, 523 F.2d 1344 (CA9 1975).
In 1984, the Court approved the pre-emptive authority that the Commission had asserted over the regulation of cable television systems. We held that in the Communications Act of 1934, Congress authorized the Commission "to regulate all aspects of interstate communication by wire or radio," including the subsequently developed medium of cable television, and that the Commission's authority "extends to all regulatory actions `necessary to ensure the achievement of the Commission's statutory responsibilities.' " Crisp, supra, at 700, quoting FCC v. Midwest Video Corp., 440 U.S. 689, 706 (1979). Although the state law that was invalidated in Crisp regulated commercial advertising on
A few months after the Court's decision in Crisp, Congress enacted the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 (Cable Act or Act), 98 Stat. 2780, 47 U. S. C. §§ 521-559 (1982 ed., Supp. IV). Among its objectives in passing the Cable Act, Congress purported to "establish a national policy concerning cable communications" and to "minimize unnecessary regulation that would impose an undue economic burden on cable systems." 47 U. S. C. §§ 521(1), (6) (1982 ed., Supp. IV). The Act was also intended to "establish guidelines for the exercise of Federal, State, and local authority with respect to the regulation of cable systems" through procedures and standards that "encourage the growth and development of cable systems and which assure that cable systems are responsive to the needs and interests of the local community." §§ 521(3), (2) (1982 ed., Supp. IV).
The Cable Act left franchising to state or local authorities; those authorities were also empowered to specify the facilities and equipment that franchisees were to use, provided such requirements were "consistent with this title." Cable Act, §§ 624(a),(b), 47 U. S. C. §§ 544(a),(b) (1982 ed., Supp. IV). Section 624(e) of the Cable Act provided that "[t]he Commission may establish technical standards relating to the facilities and equipment of cable systems which a franchising authority may require in the franchise." 47 U. S. C. § 544(e) (1982 ed., Supp. IV).
In 1985, the Commission promulgated regulations that would establish technical standards governing signal quality for one of four different classes of cable television channels and that would forbid local cable franchising authorities to impose their own standards on any of the four classes of channels. 50 Fed. Reg. 7801, 7802 (1985), 47 CFR pt. 76 (1986).
The Court of Appeals granted partial relief to petitioners. 259 U. S. App. D. C. 191, 814 F.2d 720 (1987). It noted that the Commission had adopted technical standards applicable to one class of cable television channels, but had left the other three classes of channels completely unregulated. It agreed with petitioners that the Commission had acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it did not adopt technical standards for the latter three classes of channels, yet prohibited local authorities from adopting such standards and ignored the apparent conflict between these actions and the language of the Cable Act. It therefore vacated this part of the rule and remanded to the Commission for further proceedings. The court's holding was unanimous on this point, and that part of its decision is not at issue here.
When the Federal Government acts within the authority it possesses under the Constitution, it is empowered to pre-empt state laws to the extent it is believed that such action is necessary to achieve its purposes. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution gives force to federal action of this kind by stating that "the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance" of the Constitution "shall be the supreme Law of the Land." U. S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2. The phrase "Laws of the United States" encompasses both federal statutes themselves and federal regulations that are properly adopted in accordance with statutory authorization. For this reason, at the same time that our decisions have established a number of ways in which Congress can be understood to have pre-empted state law, see Louisiana Public Service Comm'n v. FCC, 476 U.S. 355, 368-369 (1986), we have also recognized that "a federal agency acting within the scope of its congressionally delegated authority may pre-empt state
This case involves the latter kind of pre-emption, and here the inquiry becomes whether the federal agency has properly exercised its own delegated authority rather than simply whether Congress has properly exercised the legislative power. Thus we have emphasized that in a situation where state law is claimed to be pre-empted by federal regulation, a "narrow focus on Congress' intent to supersede state law [is] misdirected," for "[a] pre-emptive regulation's force does not depend on express congressional authorization to displace state law." Fidelity Federal Savings & Loan Assn. v. De la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141, 154 (1982). Instead, the correct focus is on the federal agency that seeks to displace state law and on the proper bounds of its lawful authority to undertake such action. The statutorily authorized regulations of an agency will pre-empt any state or local law that conflicts with such regulations or frustrates the purposes thereof. Beyond that, however, in proper circumstances the agency may determine that its authority is exclusive and pre-empts any state efforts to regulate in the forbidden area. Crisp, 467 U. S., at 700; De la Cuesta, supra, at 152-154. It has long been recognized that many of the responsibilities conferred on federal agencies involve a broad grant of authority to reconcile conflicting policies. Where this is true, the Court has cautioned that even in the area of pre-emption, if the agency's choice to pre-empt "represents a reasonable accommodation of conflicting policies that were committed to the agency's care by the statute, we should not disturb it unless it appears from the statute or its legislative history that the accommodation is not one that Congress would have sanctioned." United States v. Shimer, 367 U.S. 374, 383 (1961); see also Crisp, supra, at 700.
In this case, there is no room for doubting that the Commission intended to pre-empt state technical standards governing the quality of cable television signals. In adopting the regulations at issue here, the Commission said:
As noted above, the policy adopted by the Commission in 1974, which was continued in effect by the 1985 regulations, was a pre-emptive policy applying in the area of technical standards governing signal quality. 49 F. C. C. 2d, at 477-481. Since the Commission has explicitly stated its intent to exercise exclusive authority in this area and to pre-empt state and local regulation, this case does not turn on
The second part of the inquiry is whether the Commission is legally authorized to pre-empt state and local regulation that would establish complementary or additional technical standards, where it clearly is possible for a cable operator to comply with these standards in addition to the federal standards. We have identified at least two reasons why this part of the inquiry is crucial to our determination of the pre-emption issue. "First, an agency literally has no power to act, let alone pre-empt the validly enacted legislation of a sovereign State, unless and until Congress confers power upon it. Second, the best way of determining whether Congress intended the regulations of an administrative agency to displace state law is to examine the nature and scope of the authority granted by Congress to the agency." Louisiana Public Service Comm'n, 476 U. S., at 374. The second reason was particularly relevant in Louisiana Public Service Comm'n because there we were obliged to assess the import of a statutory section in which Congress appeared to have explicitly limited the Commission's jurisdiction, so as to prohibit it from pre-empting state laws concerning the manner in which telephone companies could depreciate certain plant and equipment. Id., at 369-376, 379, construing 47 U. S. C. § 152(b).
We conclude here that the Commission acted within the statutory authority conferred by Congress when it pre-empted state and local technical standards governing the quality of cable television signals. When Congress enacted the Cable Act in 1984, it acted against a background of federal pre-emption on this particular issue. For the preceding 10 years, the Commission had pre-empted such state and local technical standards under its broad delegation of authority
In the Cable Act, Congress sanctioned in relevant respects the regulatory scheme that the Commission had been following since 1974. In § 624 of the Cable Act, Congress specified that the local franchising authority could regulate "services, facilities, and equipment" in certain respects, and could enforce those requirements, but § 624(e) of the Act grants the Commission the power to "establish technical standards relating to the facilities and equipment of cable systems which a franchising authority may require in the franchise." 47 U. S. C. §§ 544(a)-(e) (1982 ed., Supp. IV). This mirrors the state of the regulatory law before the Cable Act was passed, which permitted the local franchising authorities to regulate many aspects of cable services, facilities, and equipment but not to impose technical standards governing cable signal quality, since the Commission had explicitly reserved this power to the Federal Government.
It is also quite significant that nothing in the Cable Act or its legislative history indicates that Congress explicitly disapproved of the Commission's pre-emption of local technical standards.
This passage from the House Report makes clear that the Act was not intended to work any significant change in the law in the respects relevant to this case. By noting that § 624(e) authorizes "the Commission to set technical standards related to facilities and equipment" and that it "does not affect the authority of a franchising authority to establish standards regarding facilities and equipment" that are not inconsistent with Commission standards, the House Report indicates both that Congress did not intend to remove from the Commission its longstanding power to establish pre-emptive
In sum, we find nothing in the Cable Act which leads us to believe that the Commission's decision to pre-empt local technical standards governing the quality of cable signals "is not one that Congress would have sanctioned." Shimer, 367
It is so ordered.