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Bowsher v. Synar

Citation. 478 U.S. 714 (1986)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Congress argues that the Comptroller General, an Executive Branch officer, is subservient to Congress and must follow the congressional order.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Constitution does not contemplate an active role for Congress in the supervision of officers charged with the execution of the laws it enacts.


In 1985, the President signed into law the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. The purpose of the Act is to eliminate the federal budget deficit. The Act sets a maximum deficit amount for federal spending for each year from 1986 through 1991. The size of the maximum deficit amount progressively reduces to zero in 1991. If in any year, the federal budget deficit exceeds the maximum deficit amount by more than a specified term, the Act requires across-the-board cuts in federal spending. The Comptroller General after reviewing the annual report, reports his conclusions to the President. The President must issue an order mandating the spending reductions specified by the Comptroller General. There follows a period during which Congress may by legislation reduce spending to obviate the need for the order.


Does the assignment by Congress to the Comptroller General of the United States of certain functions under the federal statute violate the doctrine of separation of powers?


No, once Congress makes its choice in enacting legislation, its participation ends. Congress can thereafter control the execution of its enactment only indirectly – by passing new legislation. By placing the responsibility for execution of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act in the hands of an officer who is subject to removal only by itself, Congress has retained control over the execution of the Act and has intruded into the executive function. The Constitution does not permit such intrusion.


Justice White

Of the six Comptrollers who have served since 1921, none has been threatened with removal. The threat to separation of powers conjured up by the majority is nonsensical.


The critical factor lies in the provisions of the statute defining the Comptroller General’s office relating to removability. Although the Comptroller General is nominated by the President, he is removable only at the initiative of Congress. He may be removed not only be impeachment but also by joint resolution of Congress at any time given that certain conditions are met. Moreover, the executive nature of the Comptroller General’s functions under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act is revealed in the Act which gives him the ultimate authority to determine the budget cuts to be made. Comptroller General has the independence of the executive branch and thus, the works assigned by Congress violate the separation of powers doctrine.

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