Bowsher v. Snyar, 478 U.S. 714; 106 S. Ct. 3181; 92 L. Ed. 2d 583 (1986)

Bowsher v. Snyar, 478 U.S. 714; 106 S. Ct. 3181; 92 L. Ed. 2d 583 (1986)

Facts—The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (popularly known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act) put a cap on the amount of federal spending for the fiscal years 1986 through 1991. If in any fiscal year the budget rises beyond the prescribed maximum, by more than a specified sum, the act mandated across-the-board cuts in federal spending. The comptroller general had, as a consequence, the responsibility of preparing a report to the president indicating the projected revenues and reductions to reduce the deficit. The president will issue an order mandating these cuts. No sooner was the act signed when twelve congressmen contested its constitutionality. The District Court ruled, inter alia, that the comptroller’s role in the deficit reduction process was constitutionally infirm under the doctrine of separation of powers. It went to the Supreme Court on direct appeal.

Question—“The question . . . is whether the assignment by Congress to the comptroller general . . . of certain functions under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 violates the doctrine of separation of powers.”


ReasonsC.J. Burger (7–2). “Even a cursory examination of the constitution reveals the influence of Montesquieu’s thesis that checks and balances were the foundation of a structure of government that would protect liberty.” No officer of the government can sit in Congress. The president is responsible not to the Congress, but to the people, subject only to impeachment proceedings, and even here the chief justice presides if it involves the president. This system to be sure, produces, at times, conflicts, confusion, and discordance “but it was deliberately so structured to assure full, vigorous and open debate.” The fundamental necessity “of maintaining each of the three general departments of government entirely free . . . is hardly open to serious question.”

In INS v. Chadha (1983), we struck down a one-house “legislative veto provision.” To permit an officer (comptroller general) supervised by Congress to execute the laws would be, in essence, to permit a congressional veto. It is urged that the comptroller general performs his duties independently of Congress. This view “does not bear close scrutiny.” Although nominated by the president the comptroller general is removed not only by congressional impeachment but also by a joint resolution. The dissent is in error in believing the comptrol- ler general is free of congressional influence. It is not enough to believe that judicial assessment turns on whether an officer exercising power is on good terms with Congress, for the fathers were dealing with structural protection against abuse of power.” The judgment of the District Court is affirmed.

J. White argued in dissent that the majority was applying a “distressingly formalistic” view of separation of powers in this case. J. Blackmun argued in dissent that, if Congress attempted to remove the comptroller general, the Court could then declare that action to be unconstitutional.

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