Bowsher v. Synar
478 U.S. 714 (1986)

  • Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Control Act of 1985. The Act was designed to eliminate the federal budget deficit by restricting spending during fiscal years 1986 through 1991.
    • Under the law, if maximum allowable deficit amounts were exceeded, automatic cuts, as requested by the Comptroller General, would go into effect.
  • The US Supreme Court found that the duties which the Congress delegated to the Comptroller General did violate the doctrine of separation of powers and were unconstitutional.
    • The Supreme Court used a two step process:
      • The Supreme Court felt that that the Comptroller General was subservient to the Legislative Branch.
        • The Act gave Congress the power to remove the Comptroller via means other than impeachment. The power to fire gave Congress de facto control over him.
        • In order to remove the Comptroller General, Congress would need to have both houses of Congress vote to remove him, and the vote could be vetoed by the President (like any normal bill).
      • Second, in examining the functions that this officer would carry out under the Deficit Control Act, the Court concluded that the Comptroller General was being asked to execute the laws and, thus, was intruding on the prerogatives of the Executive Branch.
  • In a dissent, Justice White’s argued that the Act should have been upheld.
    • Determining the level of spending by the Federal government is a legislative function, not an executive one, he argued. Even if the power were executive, White did not see anything wrong with delegating that power to an agent as long as Congress can only influence him by a means that is subject to the Presentment Clause and Bicameralism Clause requirements.
      • White felt that the Act met those requirements, since the Comptroller can only be influenced by Congress by a joint resolution.
  • Basically, Congress can only write laws, they can’t execute the laws. The Deficit Control Act basically had Congress ordering someone to execute laws. Therefore, it violated separation of powers.
    • This ruling helped to maintain the idea of the Administrative State that was jeopardized by INS v. Chada (462 U.S. 919 (1983)), by arguing that the real problem with INS v. Chada was that Congress, after passing a law, had a continuing role in executing the law, not that having Executive Branch agencies making laws via rulemaking (thereby violating the Presentment Clause and separation of powers).
      • Administrative agencies can make regulations, but Congress can’t meddle with those regulations (other than by passing explicit laws, bicamerally and with presentment).
      • Congress cannot be involved in an executive function, vs. Congress can’t engage in a legislative function that doesn’t meet the standards of bicameralism and presentment.