Bowsher v. Synar Case Brief

Facts of the case

Due to rising government budget deficits during the first term of the Reagan Administration, 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. This case was decided together with O’Neill v. Synar and United States Senate v. Synar.

Why is the case important?

The Comptroller General’s role in the government was questioned.

Question

Whether the Comptroller General is controlled by Congress. Whether the Comptroller General ha[d] been assigned [executive] powers in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

ANSWER

Yes. The Supreme Court of the United States (the Court), zeroed in on the specific language of the Budget and Accounting Act. Because so many of the provisions of the Act placed the Comptroller General firmly under Congressional control, specifically removal authority, the Court concluded that the General “may not be entrusted with executive powers.” Yes. The Court, again paying attention to the specific provisions of the act, found that the office was “the very essence of ‘execution’ of the law.” Under the law, “the Comptroller General must exercise judgment concerning facts that affect the application of the Act. He must also interpret the provisions of the Act to determine precisely what budgetary calculations are required.” The Court concluded that “Congress in effect has retained control over the execution of the Act and has intruded into the executive function.” Dissent. Justice White’s dissent focused on what he saw as the Court’s “attaching dispositive significance to what should be regarded as a triviality.” Justice Blackmun’s dissent argued that the original statute should have been found unconstitutional. Concurrence. Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Marshall, concurred in the judgment, focusing on Article I of the Constitution.

CONCLUSION

Responsibility for execution of the Act was placed in the hands of the Comptroller General. It violated separation of powers as the statute delegated executive powers to an officer under Congress’ direct control. Congress retained control over such execution and thus intruded into the executive function in violation of separation of powers. The Act was unconstitutional because it gave the Comptroller General, an officer of the legislative branch over whom Congress retained removal power, the ultimate authority to determine the budget cuts to be made, functions plainly entailing execution of the law in constitutional terms.

  • Advocates: Lloyd N. Cutler Argued the cause for the appellant in No. 85-1377 Alan B. Morrison Argued the cause for appellees Synar et al Steven R. Ross Argued the cause for the appellants in No. 85-1379 Charles Fried Argued the cause for the United States Michael Davidson Argued the cause for the appellant in No. 85-1378 Lois G. Williams Argued the cause for appellees National Treasury Employees Union et al
  • Appellant: Bowsher
  • Appellee: Synar
  • DECIDED BY:Burger Court
  • Location: Congress
Citation: 478 US 714 (1986)
Argued: Apr 23, 1986
Decided: Jul 7, 1986
Bowsher v. Synar Case Brief