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High court hits key part of budget law.

High court hits key part of budget law

The U.S. Supreme Court this week handed down its ruling on a challenge to the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, better known for the names of its Senate authors--Gramm, Rudman and Hollings. Writing for the majority in this 7-to-2 opinion, retiring Chief Justice Warren Burger ruled that one of the law's key provisions for executing automatic budget cuts "violates the doctrine of separation of powers,' and thus is unconstitutional.

In response, Sen. Warren Rudman (R.N.H.) termed the Supreme Court decision "a very minor setback,' and added that he still believes "the [Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law] is alive and well.'

Because the court's decision did not invalidate the entire Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GRH) law, it leaves in limbo the status of the $11.7 billion curtailment in federal spending--including some $2.5 billion from research and development programs--that occurred on March 1, the day the first phase of the law went into effect (SN:3/1/86, p. 135).

What the Supreme Court did strike down was the task the law assigned to the Comptroller General, who heads the General Accounting Office. The comptroller was supposed to determine for the President how mandatory budget cuts would be distributed if federal spending for a given fiscal year would otherwise have exceeded limits specified in the GRH law. Since only Congress can remove the Comptroller General from office, Burger says it is clear that this officer is primarily answerable to the Congress, and therefore an officer of the Congress. And since "the Constitution does not permit Congress to execute the laws,' Burger says, "it follows that Congress cannot grant to an officer under its control what it does not possess.'

Anticipating this constitutional challenge, the law's authors wrote into the Act a fallback provision: It requires that Congress authorize the mandatory budget cuts specified under the law. In "staying' its judgment for 60 days, the Supreme Court gave Congress time either to authorize the already enacted March 1 curtailments, or to remove the unconstitutional provision from the law. If neither occurs within the 60 days, those initial cuts could be invalidated. However, neither sponsors nor critics of the law expect that will be allowed to happen.

"Gramm-Rudman tried to insulate Congress from the hard choices,' says Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), one of those who spearheaded the law's constitutional challenge. If Congress proposed spending more money for popular programs than the law would allow, the now-invalidated provision would have left the President to implement cuts in those programs. "We argued this was wrong and the Court agreed,' Synar says.

Nonetheless, Senators Rudman, Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) have announced they will soon introduce an amendment--something they call Gramm-Rudman-Hollings II--to reinstate the original role of the Comptroller General and President. To circumvent the constitutional problem, this legislation would make the Comptroller General removable by the President.
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 12, 1986
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