APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT.
Brennan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Marshall, Rehnquist, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., and Blackmun, J., dissented. Powell and O'connor, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.
JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
In these consolidated cases, we are asked by 26 private telephone companies and the United States to sustain the holding of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that orders of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) respecting the depreciation of telephone plant and equipment pre-empt inconsistent state regulation. They are opposed by the Public Service Commissions of 23 States, backed by 30 amici curiae, who argue that the Communications Act of 1934 (Act), 48 Stat. 1064, as amended, 47 U. S. C. § 151 et seq., expressly denied the FCC authority to establish depreciation practices and charges insofar as they relate to the setting of rates for intrastate telephone service.
Respondents suggest that the heart of the cases is whether the revolution in telecommunications occasioned by the federal policy of increasing competition in the industry will be thwarted by state regulators who have yet to recognize or
accept this national policy and who thus refuse to permit telephone companies to employ accurate accounting methods designed to reflect, in part, the effects of competition. We are told that already there may be as much as $26 billion worth of "reserve deficiencies" on the books of the Nation's local telephone companies, a reserve which, it is insisted, represents inadequate depreciation of a magnitude that threatens the financial ability of the industry to achieve the technological progress and provide the quality of service that the Act was passed to promote. Petitioners answer that the Act clearly establishes a system of dual state and federal authority over telephone service. They contend that the Act vests in the States exclusive power over intrastate ratemaking, which power, petitioners argue, includes final authority over how depreciation shall be calculated for the purpose of setting those intrastate rates. Petitioners note also that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment necessarily represents a check on the power of the States to set depreciation rates at what would amount to confiscatory levels, and that respondents therefore overstate the danger of the States crippling the financial vitality of phone companies.
In deciding these cases, it goes without saying that we do not assess the wisdom of the asserted federal policy of encouraging competition within the telecommunications industry. Nor do we consider whether the FCC should have the authority to enforce, as it sees fit, practices which it believes would best effectuate this purpose. Important as these issues may be, our task is simply to determine where Congress has placed the responsibility for prescribing depreciation methods to be used by state commissions in setting rates for intrastate telephone service. In our view, the language, structure, and legislative history of the Act best support petitioners' position that the Act denies the FCC the power to dictate to the States as it has in these cases, and accordingly, we reverse.
The Act establishes, among other things, a system of dual state and federal regulation over telephone service, and it is the nature of that division of authority that these cases are about. In broad terms, the Act grants to the FCC the authority to regulate "interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication," 47 U. S. C. § 151, while expressly denying that agency "jurisdiction with respect to . . . intrastate communication service . . . ." 47 U. S. C. § 152(b). However, while the Act would seem to divide the world of domestic telephone service neatly into two hemispheres -- one comprised of interstate service, over which the FCC would have plenary authority, and the other made up of intrastate service, over which the States would retain exclusive jurisdiction -- in practice, the realities of technology and economics belie such a clean parceling of responsibility. This is so because virtually all telephone plant that is used to provide intrastate service is also used to provide interstate service, and is thus conceivably within the jurisdiction of both state and federal authorities. Moreover, because the same carriers provide both interstate and intrastate service, actions taken by federal and state regulators within their respective domains necessarily affect the general financial health of those carriers, and hence their ability to provide service, in the other "hemisphere."
In 1980 and 1981, the FCC issued two orders that ultimately sparked this litigation. In the 1980 order the FCC changed two depreciation practices affecting telephone plant. Property Depreciation, 83 F. C. C. 2d 267, reconsideration denied, 87 F. C. C. 2d 916 (1981). First, the order altered how carriers could group property subject to depreciation. Because carriers employ so many individual items of equipment in providing service, it would be impossible to depreciate each item individually, and property is therefore classified and depreciated in groups. The order permitted companies the option of grouping plant for depreciation purposes
based on its estimated service life (the "equal life" approach). This replaced the FCC's prior practice of requiring companies to classify and depreciate property according to its year of installation (the "vintage year" method). This change was made to allow depreciation to be based on smaller and more homogeneous groupings, which, the FCC concluded, would result in more accurate matching of capital recovery with capital consumption.
The 1980 order further sought to promote improved accounting accuracy by replacing "whole life" depreciation with the "remaining life" method. Under remaining life, and unlike the treatment under a whole life regime, if estimates upon which depreciation schedules are premised prove erroneous, they may be corrected in midcourse in a way that assures that the full cost of the asset will ultimately be recovered.
The third FCC-mandated change in plant depreciation was announced in a 1981 order, and involved the cost of labor and material associated with the installation of wire inside the premises of a business or residence. The new rule provided that this so-called "inside wiring" no longer be treated as a capital investment to be depreciated over time, but rather as a cost to be "expensed" in the year incurred. Uniform System of Accounts, 85 F. C. C. 2d 818.
Later in 1981, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) petitioned the FCC for a "clarification" of its order respecting inside wiring. Specifically, NARUC sought a declaration that the FCC's order did not restrict the discretion of state commissions to follow different depreciation practices in computing revenue requirements and rates for intrastate services.
On April 27, 1982, the FCC issued a memorandum opinion and order in which it agreed with NARUC that its order respecting the depreciation of inside wiring did not preclude state regulators "from using their own accounting and depreciation procedures for intrastate ratemaking [purposes] . . . ."
adequate facilities at reasonable charges . . .' 47 U. S. C. 151," and that "[state] depreciation rate prescriptions that do not adequately provide for capital recovery in the competitive environment, which constitutes this Commission's policy in those markets found capable of supporting competition, would frustrate the accomplishment of that policy and are preemptable by this Commission." 92 F. C. C. 2d, at 876.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Virginia State Corporation Comm'n v. FCC, 737 F.2d 388 (1984).*fn1 It acknowledged that the Act "does reserve to the states the authority to prescribe rates for intrastate telephone service," but determined that "reservation [of authority] is not to be read as preserving the states' sphere of intrastate jurisdiction at the expense of an efficient, viable interstate telecommunications network." Id., at 392. The court then noted that the FCC had intended to pre-empt state practices, held that the authority to do so was statutorily entrusted to the FCC, and found that the regulations at issue were reasonably designed to ensure that federal objectives would not be frustrated. The Court of Appeals did not reach the Commission's holding that § 220 of the Act automatically operates to pre-empt state-prescribed depreciation at odds with depreciation ordered by the FCC. We granted certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals. 472 U.S. 1025 (1985).*fn2
Both petitioners and respondents characterize this litigation as one in which two different persons seek to drive one car, a condition the parties agree is unsatisfactory.*fn3 Where the parties disagree is with respect to who ought to be displaced from the controls. In order to address the contentions, it is appropriate to consider not only the structure of the Act and how it divides authority, but also the nature and function of depreciation as a component of utility regulation.
Depreciation is defined as the loss in service value of a capital asset over time. In the context of public utility accounting and regulation, it is a process of charging the cost of depreciable property, adjusted for net salvage, to operating expense accounts over the useful life of the asset. Thus, accounting practices significantly affect, among other things, the rates that customers pay for service. This is so because a ...