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Bowsher v. Synar

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Significance: The Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Congress to invest one of its own legislative officers with powers belonging to the executive branch.


Faced with continuing budget deficits, Congress set annual ceilings for deficits in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. If Congress failed to make the necessary budget cuts, the statute authorized the comptroller general to instruct the president concerning where to make the reductions. Representative Mike Synar and eleven other members of Congress challenged the constitutionality of the statute in the Supreme Court. Speaking for a 7-2 majority, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote that Congress could not delegate the comptroller general with powers to make decisions properly belonging to the president. Because the comptroller general was an agent of Congress and independent of the executive departments, the statute encroached on the president's duty to execute the laws. Thus, Burger's opinion relied on the relatively narrow principle of separation of powers and avoided the much broader nondelegation doctrine, which would have had great implications for the modern administrative state. Burger approved of the fallback provision of the 1985 statute, which allowed Congress to make the final budget decision by joint resolution, subject to presidential veto.