CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question presented by these appeals is whether the assignment by Congress to the Comptroller General of the United States of certain functions under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 violates the doctrine of separation of powers.
These "automatic" reductions are accomplished through a rather complicated procedure. Each year, the Directors of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) independently estimate the amount of the federal budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. If that deficit exceeds the maximum targeted deficit amount for that fiscal year by more than a specified amount, the Directors of OMB and CBO independently calculate, on a program-by-program basis, the budget reductions necessary to ensure that the deficit does not exceed the maximum deficit amount. The Act then requires the Directors to report jointly their deficit estimates and budget reduction calculations to the Comptroller General.
The Comptroller General, after reviewing the Directors' reports, then
reports his conclusions to the President. The President in turn must issue
a "sequestration" order mandating the spending reductions specified by
the Comptroller General. There follows a period during which Congress may
by legislation reduce spending to obviate, in whole or in part, the need
for the sequestration order. If such reductions are not enacted, the sequestration
order becomes effective and the spending reductions included in that order
A three-judge District Court invalidated the reporting provisions....Although
the District Court concluded that the Act survived a delegation doctrine
challenge, it held that the role of the Comptroller General in the deficit
reduction process violated the constitutionally imposed separation of powers...We
noted probable jurisdiction and expedited consideration of the appeals.
In light of these precedents, we conclude that Congress cannot reserve for itself the power of removal of an officer charged with the execution of the laws except by impeachment. To permit the execution of the laws to be vested in an officer answerable only to Congress would, in practical terms, reserve in Congress control over the execution of the laws. As the District Court observed: "Once an officer is appointed, it is only the authority that can remove him, and not the authority that appointed him, that he must fear and, in the performance of his functions, obey." The structure of the Constitution does not permit Congress to execute the laws; it follows that Congress cannot grant to an officer under its control what it does not possess.
Our decision in INS v. Chadha (1983), supports this conclusion.... To
permit an officer controlled by Congress to execute the laws would be,
in essence, to permit a congressional veto. Congress could simply remove,
or threaten to remove, an officer for executing the laws in any fashion
found to be unsatisfactory to Congress. This kind of congressional control
over the execution of the laws, Chadha makes clear, is constitutionally
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 from a list of three individuals recommended by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate, and confirmed by the Senate, he is removable only at the initiative of Congress. He may be removed not only by impeachment but also by joint resolution of Congress "at any time" resting on any one of the following bases: "(i) permanent disability; (ii) inefficiency; (iii) neglect of duty; (iv) malfeasance; or (v) a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude."
This provision was included, as one Congressman explained in urging passage of the Act, because Congress "felt that [the Comptroller General] should be brought under the sole control of Congress, so that Congress at any moment when it found he was inefficient and was not carrying on the duties of his office as he should and as the Congress expected, could remove him without the long, tedious process of a trial by impeachment."
The removal provision was an important part of the legislative scheme, as a number of Congressmen recognized....
We need not decide whether "inefficiency" or "malfeasance" are terms as broad as "maladministration" in order to reject the dissent's position that removing the Comptroller General requires "a feat of bipartisanship more difficult than that required to impeach and convict." Surely no one would seriously suggest that judicial independence would be strengthened by allowing removal of federal judges only by a joint resolution finding "inefficiency," "neglect of duty," or "malfeasance."
It is clear that Congress has consistently viewed the Comptroller General as an officer of the Legislative Branch.... Over the years, the Comptrollers General have also viewed themselves as part of the Legislative Branch....
Against this background, we see no escape from the conclusion that, because Congress has retained removal authority over the Comptroller General, he may not be entrusted with executive powers. The remaining question is whether the Comptroller General has been assigned such powers in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.
The executive nature of the Comptroller General's functions under the
Act is revealed in 252(a)(3) which gives the Comptroller General the ultimate
authority to determine the budget cuts to be made. Indeed, the Comptroller
General commands the President himself to carry out, without the slightest
variation (with exceptions not relevant to the constitutional issues presented),
the directive of the Comptroller General as to the budget reductions....
See also 251(d)(3)(A).
...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 in effect 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, dissenting.
The Court, acting in the name of separation of powers, takes upon itself to strike down the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, one of the most novel and far-reaching legislative responses to a national crisis since the New Deal. The basis of the Court's action is a solitary provision of another statute that was passed over 60 years ago and has lain dormant since that time. I cannot concur in the Court's action. Like the Court, I will not purport to speak to the wisdom of the policies incorporated in the legislation the Court invalidates; that is a matter for the Congress and the Executive, both of which expressed their assent to the statute barely half a year ago. I will, however, address the wisdom of the Court's willingness to interpose its distressingly formalistic view of separation of powers as a bar to the attainment of governmental objectives through the means chosen by the Congress and the President in the legislative process established by the Constitution. Twice in the past four years I have expressed my view that the Court's recent efforts to police the separation of powers have rested on untenable constitutional propositions leading to regrettable results. Today's result is even more misguided. As I will explain, the Court's decision rests on a feature of the legislative scheme that is of minimal practical significance and that presents no substantial threat to the basic scheme of separation of powers. In attaching dispositive significance to what should be regarded as a triviality, the Court neglects what has in the past been recognized as a fundamental principle governing consideration of disputes over separation of powers:
Exploring Constitutional Conflicts