US exporters of alcohol beverages to Canada will soon face stiffer competition from their European rivals. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is expected to come into force by June 1, 2017, and Canadian duties on EU wines, beer and other alcoholic beverages will go to zero immediately. While tariffs on EU wine imports are already fairly low, products such as ciders will have their current duty rate reduced from 28 cents per liter to zero immediately. In fact, the European Commission is already extolling the expanded export opportunities for EU wine and spirit producers as a major selling point for CETA.

The US is expected to enter into formal North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations with Canada and Mexico this summer. US alcohol beverage producers and trade associations should act now to ensure that the US negotiators protect US market access in Canada and otherwise promote their interests.

The USDA report and list of EU products that will receive duty-free treatment under CETA is available here.

On January 30, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order No. 13771, entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.” A link to Executive Oder 13771 appears here.  The Order provides:

  1. For Fiscal Year 2017 (which ends September 30, 2017):
    1. For each new “regulation” published for notice and comment “or otherwise promulgated,” the agency in question must “identify” two existing regulations to be repealed. Notably, the Order does not require the repeal to be concurrent with the publication or promulgation of the new regulation.
    2. For Fiscal Year 2017, each agency must ensure that the total incremental costs of all new and repealed regulations shall not exceed zero, unless otherwise required by law or as consistent with the advice of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The Order does not specify whether the costs in question represent costs to the agency, costs to the government or total societal costs. It also does not provide any guidance on how to calculate such costs.
    3. To the extent permitted by law, the costs of any new regulations shall be offset by the elimination of costs associated with at least two existing regulations. Once again, the Order provides no guidance on what constitute costs of a regulation or how to calculate such costs.
    4. The OMB is directed to provide agencies with guidance on how to implement the Order.
  2. Beginning with Fiscal Year 2018 (which begins October 1, 2017):
    1. The semi-annual Unified Regulatory Agenda for each agency must: (i) identify for each new regulation “that increases incremental cost,” two offsetting regulations; and (ii) provide an approximation of the total costs or savings for each new and repealed regulation.
    2. Each regulation approved by the OMB shall be included in the Unified Regulatory Agenda.
    3. Unless otherwise required by law, agencies may not issue new regulations that were not listed in the most recent Unified Regulatory Agenda.
    4. During the budgeting process, the OMB shall notify agencies of the total costs per agency that will be allowed in issuing and repealing new regulations for the upcoming fiscal year.
    5. The OMB shall provide agencies with guidance on implementing the Order’s requirements.

Executive Oder 13771 applies to each “executive department or agency,” but leaves a number of government regulatory functions outside of its scope. These include agencies involved in military, national security, and foreign affairs functions, as well as any government organization arising from the Legislative or Judicial branches. Nevertheless, the Order applies to a vast swath of the federal bureaucracy.

On its face, Executive Order 13771 could have a significant impact on the pace of federal rulemaking during the Trump Administration. The “two-for-one” requirement, in particular, appears to be a blunt instrument aimed at shrinking the Code of Federal Regulations. Moreover, the explicit requirement for cost estimates and “zero” total costs flowing from the rulemaking process plainly seeks to halt the growth and costs of the federal administrative state.

But the jury remains out on the practical impact of Executive Order 13771. Longstanding observers of the federal bureaucracy will, no doubt, recall that the Paperwork Reduction Act (1980), Executive Order 12866 (1993), the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, and other measures all failed to noticeably slow the growth or improve the functioning of the administrative state. In that spirit, President Trump’s Executive Order leaves many questions unanswered:

  1. Much hinges on the interpretation of “costs” referenced throughout the Executive Order. Does this mean the costs to the Agency, the entire federal government or society at large? And, particularly if “costs” are defined broadly, how will agencies and/or the OMB calculate such costs? The OMB presumably must arrive at answers to these fundamental questions.
  2. While a “rule” has a defined meaning in administrative law, a “regulation” does not. While the Order purports to define the term, as every lawyer in an administrative practice knows, individual “sections” within the Code of Federal Regulations are called “regulations” and come in many sizes. Does an agency satisfy the “two-for-one” rule by replacing two one-sentence regulations with a single ten-sentence regulation? The opportunities to “game” the Executive Order’s mandate seem endless.
  3. The Executive Order might not withstand a legal challenge. While the President yields broad authority over most administrative agencies, nothing in current law authorizes a “two-for-one” rule. While a full analysis is beyond the scope of this note, on its face the Order seems to push the boundaries of what a President can mandate by Executive Order.

Finally, the Executive Order may accelerate the unfortunate trend of agencies to make rules through informal documents instead of the notice-and-comment rulemaking process mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act. During the past several decades, many agencies have sought to shortcut the rulemaking process by asserting that any number of substantive rules are mere “interpretations” not subject to notice-and-comment. Too often, the legal costs and potential for relationship damage involved in challenging such rules outweighs the benefit of a challenge. (For example, how willing is a heavily-regulated brewery, winery or distillery to engage in protracted litigation with the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau?)  As a result, usually the regulated public tacitly accepts this subversion of Administrative Procedures Act requirements – requirements that flow directly from the Fifth Amendment’s requirement for Due Process of Law. By making formal notice-and-comment rulemaking even more burdensome, Executive Order 13771 will likely accelerate the pace of regulation by internet posting, bottom-drawer regulation, letter ruling and other means that do not provide the regulated public with notice and an opportunity to comment on legal requirements that will affect them.

In the end, then, President Trump’s Executive Order on Reducing Regulations leaves many important questions unanswered and, like other like-minded actions before it (e.g., the Paperwork Reduction Act), may not progress the objective of simplifying and reducing the federal bureaucracy.

On January 23, 2017 the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) published a Temporary Rule and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) related to the new definition of hard cider. Congressional action required a new definition when Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code in December 2015 by enacting the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act. The Temporary Rule lays out TTB’s current thinking on regulations to implement the revised definition, while the NPRM requests comments on the regulations spelled out in the Temporary Rule.

We view the following provisions as most significant:

1. Requiring a new mandatory tax classification statement on all products eligible for the hard cider tax rate, effective January 1, 2018.

2. Requiring the words “sparking” or “carbonated” on all hard cider with carbonation in excess of 0.392 grams per 100 ml.

3. Codifying in the regulations (although this reflects longstanding TTB policy) that materials like honey, hops, spices and pumpkin may be added to hard cider without jeopardizing the hard cider tax rate.

4. Establishing a .009 gram per 100 ml tolerance for carbonation in cider.

5. Suggesting in the pre-amble that treating materials, regardless of source, could render a product ineligible for the hard cider rate if those materials imparts a fruit flavor other than apple (under the new regulations apple or pear).

6. Codifying in the regulations for the first time (although this reflects longstanding TTB policy) that the hard cider definition and most rules also apply to imported hard cider.

The current deadline for comments on the proposed regulations is March 24, 2017, but TTB generally grants reasonable extensions (typically 60 or 90 additional days) upon request.

On January 4, 2017 TTB published in the Federal Register a temporary rule, T.D. TTB–146, modifying the tax filing timeframe for taxpayers who fall below a certain monetary threshold and removing the bond requirements for certain eligible taxpayers who pay taxes below certain maximum amounts on distilled spirits, wine and beer. See 82 Fed. Reg. 1108 (Jan. 4, 2017). Congress mandated these changes when it enacted the PATH Act in December 2015, and the changes became effective on January 1, 2017. The temporary rule involves two primary changes:

  1. Taxpayers who do not reasonably expect to be liable for more than $1,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for distilled spirits, wine and beer) in the calendar year and were not liable for more than $1,000 in the prior year can pay their taxes annually rather than quarterly or semi-monthly. If a taxpayer has multiple locations, the $1,000 threshold applies to the combined total. A taxpayer must select the return period on its return.
  2. Taxpayers who do not reasonably expect to be liable for more than $50,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for distilled spirits, wine and beer) in the calendar year and were not liable for more than $50,000 in the prior year are exempt from filing bonds to cover operations or withdrawals. In order to take advantage of this exemption, the taxpayer must notify TTB of its eligibility and receive TTB approval. New applicants will do this during the initial application process and existing taxpayers can do so through an amendment to their registration or brewer’s notice. Ironically, the bond exemption does not apply to taxpayers that conduct operations or withdrawals of wine or spirits for industrial (as opposed to beverage) use.

TTB has issued additional guidance on the PATH Act’s impact in Industry Circular 2016–2 (Dec. 30, 2016).

How is it that the Brewers Association—an organization that has no political action committee, has employed a staff lobbyist for only 18 months, and has only had a strong presence in Washington since 2009—has gained significant traction among policymakers in the nation’s capital?

The BA is now a serious player in Washington. That is not by accident; it’s a carefully conceived strategy implemented by the BA board and senior staff—including president and CEO Bob Pease—over the last seven years that seeks to leverage the inherent strengths of America’s small craft brewers.

Read the full article, originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of The New Brewer.

On August 30, 2016, following a one day bench trial, Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Mulroy ruled in favor of Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) in Illinois False Claims Act (Act) litigation filed by the law firm of Stephen B. Diamond, PC (“Relator”). Relator alleged that TWE had violated the FCA by knowingly failing to collect and remit Illinois use tax on the shipping and handling charges associated with its internet sales of wine shipped to Illinois customers. State of Ill. ex rel. Stephen B. Diamond, P.C. v. Treasury Wine Estates Americas Company, d/b/a Treasury Wine Estates, No. 14 L 7563 (Cir. Ct. of Cook County, Ill. Aug. 30, 2016) (Order). The Court held that Relator failed to prove that TWE knowingly violated the FCA or that it acted in reckless disregard of any Illinois tax collection obligation.

Read the full article here.

 

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (PATH Act).  The PATH Act amends several provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (IRC) administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).  Those amendments relate to alcohol excise tax due dates and bond requirements, the definition of wine eligible for treatment as “hard cider” for tax purposes, and cover over of rum excise taxes imported from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.  In January 2016, TTB issued an announcement concerning the IRC amendments.

Starting with the first calendar quarter of 2017, taxpayers who anticipate being liable for no more than $1,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for sales of distilled spirits, beer and wine) for the calendar year, and who were not liable for more than $1,000 in such excise taxes the prior year, may make excise tax payments annually (rather than the current quarterly payment requirement).  Further, beginning the first calendar quarter of 2017, taxpayers eligible to pay taxes annually under the new provisions, as well as taxpayers currently eligible for quarterly payments of alcohol excise taxes (i.e., taxpayers anticipating being liable for no more than $50,000 in alcohol excise taxes, and who were not liable for more than $50,000 in such excise taxes the prior year), need not file a bond.

The PATH Act also modifies the definition of wine eligible for the tax rate applicable to “hard cider” by (1) increasing the allowable alcohol content from 0.5 percent to less than 7 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) to 0.5 percent to less than 8.5 percent ABV; (2) increasing the allowable carbonation level from 0.392 grams of carbon dioxide per 100 milliliters of wine to 0.64 grams; and (3) expanding the definition by allowing the use of pears, pear juice concentrate and pear products and flavorings in hard cider.  These changes apply to hard cider removed after December 31, 2016.  The hard cider definition changes do not affect other requirements applicable to ciders above 7 percent ABV under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, including requirements relating to labeling, advertising and permits.

Another section of the PATH Act extends the temporary increase in the limit on cover over of rum excise taxes to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands from January 1, 2015 to January 1, 2017.  This amendment applies to distilled spirits brought into the US after December 31, 2014.

Few craft brew entrepreneurs contemplate selling their business when they first get started.  Unlike, for example, the typical entrepreneur in the software industry, the craft brewers we know were inspired by the love of great beer, a spirit of adventure, and the romance of creating a small manufacturing business.  But the life cycle of most businesses eventually requires at least the consideration of a sale or other transaction designed to both recoup the entrepreneur’s lifelong investment and transition the company to the next generation.

From the buy side, the craft beer business has never been hotter, with market share now approaching 8 percent by volume in the U.S. and margins that have gotten the attention of both big brewers and non-U.S. brewers alike.  This article, published in the January/February 2015 issue of The New Brewer, will explore at a high level some of the issues involved with buying and selling a craft brewery.

Read the full article.

Late last year, the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) published its semi-annual regulatory agenda in the Federal Register.  The agenda provides useful insights into TTB’s regulatory plans and goals for the coming year.  As in prior years, however, observers should recognize that TTB often announces ambitious regulatory plans and deadlines that it does not meet.

TTB identified five priority projects for 2015.  First, TTB wishes to update and modernize its regulations on the labeling and advertising of wine (Pt. 4), distilled spirits (Pt. 5) and beer (Pt. 7).  In describing the initiative, TTB seems most interested in simplification and streamlining, not in the imposition of significant new labeling and advertising requirements.  Second, TTB seeks to further de-regulate and streamline its oversight of denatured alcohol and rum, a move that could help the competitiveness of U.S. industrial operations that employ alcohol.  Third, TTB wishes to amend its export and import regulations to harmonize them with the International Trade Data System (ITDS), thereby transitioning to an all-electronic import and export environment.  Fourth, TTB hopes to implement self-certification of the formulas for flavors, extracts and other non-beverage products made with alcohol.  Fifth, TTB plans to review its distilled spirits plant regulations (Pt. 19) in order to replace the current four monthly report forms required for reporting with two forms.

Leaving priorities aside, the semi-annual agenda reports on a number of rulemaking initiatives that should attract the interest of regulated industry members.  This note will group the most significant based on the affected industry:

Multiple Alcohol Beverage Categories

  1. TTB pledges to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to modernize its wine, spirits, and beer labeling and advertising regulations.  As noted above, this is a 2015 priority item for the Agency.
  2. TTB plans to issue an NPRM late in 2015 to explore whether to retain, revise or repeal the current standards of fill requirements for both wine and distilled spirits.
  3. TTB plans to issue a Final Rule requiring the electronic submission of many applications, including those for original and amended basic permits.
  4. TTB expects to issue an NPRM in April 2015 to amend its import and export regulations to make them compatible with ITDS.  This is a 2015 priority item.

Wine Projects

  1. TTB hopes to issue an NPRM on certain wine terms that were first raised to the industry in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published by TTB in 2010.
  2. TTB plans an NPRM in July 2015 to propose authorizing additional treatments for use in winemaking.
  3. TTB expects to publish an NPRM late in 2015 to clarify the labeling of certain flavored wines.

Distilled Spirits Project

  1. TTB hopes to issue a supplemental NPRM late in 2015 to propose replacing the current four monthly forms filed by distilled spirits plant operators with two forms, thereby streamlining distillers’ reporting burdens.  TTB views this project as a 2015 priority.

Non-Beverage and Industrial Alcohol Projects

  1. TTB plans to issue an NPRM on the self-certification of non-beverage product formulas – a 2015 priority item – in July 2015.
  2. TTB believes it will finalize regulations to reclassify many specially denatured alcohol (SDA) formulas as completely denatured alcohol (CDA) and permit the use of more SDA formulas without the submission of an application to TTB.  This is another 2015 priority for the Agency.

On December 1, 2014, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case that will have significant implications for federal regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

The case is Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Harris, 720 F.3d 966 (D.C. Cir. 2013).  In that decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit refined a line of cases involving the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).  The APA governs the activities of federal agencies and, among other things, generally requires notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures, including publication in the Federal Register and a period of time for industry and the public to comment on proposed regulations, in order for a federal agency to adopt a new “rule.”  These procedural requirements aim to ensure transparency in governmental operations and a public “vetting” process before an agency adopts new regulatory requirements.

Beginning in the 1990s, the D.C. Circuit – which hears a large percentage of the cases involving challenges to federal agency actions – has held that the notice-and-comment rulemaking requirement extends to agency attempts to change a settled agency interpretation of a regulation.  In other words, once an agency establishes a position on a particular issue, the D.C. Circuit has required that an agency proceed through notice-and-comment procedures to change its earlier position.

In Mortgage Bankers, the D.C. Circuit held that a person challenging an agency change in policy need not show any reliance on that policy in order to claim that an agency had violated that requirement.  The court held that nothing in its prior cases required a showing of reliance.

The Supreme Court has agreed to review the case, see Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, No. 13-1041, cert. granted 6/16/14, but on a broader issue than whether a person claiming that an agency changing its interpretation of a regulation must show reliance.  Instead, the court agreed to examine whether a federal agency must engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking before it can significantly alter an interpretive rule that articulates an interpretation of an agency regulation.  The court will hear oral argument on December 1, 2014.  Thus, the court may be poised to overrule the entire line of D.C. Circuit cases holding that an agency must engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking before changing definitive but un-codified interpretations of regulations.

A reversal of current D.C. Circuit precedent has troubling implications for the alcohol beverage industry.  Many policies of the federal agencies that regulate the industry become established through informal decisions never reduced to formal regulations.  To take one example, TTB’s policies towards the documentation of exports without payment of tax depart significantly from TTB’s published regulations, and instead rely on well-recognized and followed policies published only in informal Industry Circulars and private letter “variances” from regulations.  Consider, too, the dozens of unpublished “policies” TTB applies in the review of alcohol beverage labels, some of which go back decades and have formed the basis of entire brand propositions by the industry.  Should the law allow TTB to walk away from such longstanding but informal precedent without any process to let the industry be heard?

One potential solution is to tie a reversal of existing D.C. Circuit precedent with the reversal of the so-called Auer doctrine.  In establishing the Auer doctrine, the Supreme Court held that an agency’s interpretation of its rules (as opposed to agency regulations adopted through notice-and-comment procedures) receive deference from the courts unless “plainly erroneous.”  See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997).  In other words, under Auer an administrative agency receives a substantial benefit of the doubt when its actions are challenged, even if those actions were not subject to the public scrutiny of notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures.  Some organizations have argued or implied in friend of the court briefs that, because Auer in effect confers the force and effect of law on agency interpretations of a regulation, the interpretation may not be changed without notice-and-comment rulemaking.

The already-powerful administrative state would receive a substantial boost if, in addition to the deference extended through the Auer doctrine, agency actions to change prior policy positions were not subject to any notice-and-comment requirement.  Indeed, such a combination would, no doubt, encourage agencies to avoid notice-and-comment rulemaking altogether, as they would receive all the benefits of such rulemaking under Auer yet could change their decision at will without going through notice-and-comment at all.

Regardless of the outcome, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mortgage Bankers will substantially affect when and why federal agencies must engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures.  And, depending on the outcome, the final decision could hand FDA, TTB and other federal agencies far greater latitude to modify, repeal or change longstanding policies without any notice to or consultation with the industry.  The stakes are high indeed.