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Bowsher v. Synar


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478 U.S. 714 (1986), argued 23 Apr. 1986, decided 7 July 1986 by vote of 7 to 2; Burger for the Court, Stevens, joined by Marshall, concurring, White and Blackmun in dissent. In this decision, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. The statute provided that there should be progressive annual cuts in the federal budget deficit. The contested provision stated that the cuts would be specified by the comptroller general if Congress could not agree on them.

The constitutional challenge rested on the fact that the comptroller general is regarded as a legislative branch officer who is removable only by joint resolution of both houses of Congress. The majority concluded that the specification of budget cuts was an executive function and that to vest such a function in a legislative branch officer violated the principle of separation of powers.

Justice John Paul Stevens, concurring in the judgment, concluded that the comptroller general's function should be seen as legislative in nature. He reasoned that a legislative action could not be taken by a single legislative officer but instead must be adopted by both houses of Congress and presented to the president for approval or veto (see Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, 1983).

The majority concluded that a “legislative action” consists of the adoption of general legal standards, whereas an “executive action” consists of acting pursuant to statute. This sequential definition of the separation of powers is formalistic and, as Justice Stevens's concurrence shows, subject to different interpretations. Nonetheless, Bowsher reinforces the idea that the separation of powers should be given some bright-line meaning despite the difficulties of doing so in an era of complex government.

Thomas O. Sargentich

Subjects: Law.


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