Cyclopedia of Congressional Budget Law

Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986)


Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986), is case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985  to be unconstitutional and struck it down. The Court found that Congress had provided the Government Accountability Office (then called the “General Accounting Office”) with the authority to administer certain budget enforcement measures designed to reduce the Federal Government’s budget deficit. The Court found that the Comptroller General, the head of  the GAO was a legislative officer who, while appointed by the President, could be removed by Congress. The defendant in this case was then Comptroller General Charles A.  Bowsher and the plaintiff was Congressman Mike Synar (D-OK).

Bowsher v. Synar – Reference Material

Synar v. United States, 626 F. Supp. 1374 (D.D.C. 1986)

[Civ. A. Nos. 85-3945, 85-4106; United States District Court, District of Columbia; Decided February 7, 1986]

INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983) 

[No. 80-1832; Argued February 22, 1982; Reargued December 7, 1982; Decided June 23, 1983; 462 U.S. 919]

Memoranda Regarding Bowsher v. Synar (85-1377)

Testimony of Charles Bowsher (GAO) on Bowsher v. Synar (July 26, 1986)


Borrowing Authority



Additional Reference Material

Deschler’s Precedents: Section 26 of Chapter 41 (Volume 18)

Bowsher v. Synar

Deschler’s included this summary on the importance of Bowsher v. Synar in the context of the Rules of the House of Representatives:

Bowsher v. Synar

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986), that the automatic sequestration process contemplated in [Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985] was unconstitutional. The Court’s holding was rooted in the constitutional principle of separation-of-powers. The sequestration process of section 251 established a mechanism whereby the Comptroller General, an official removable by Congress, would determine necessary budget cuts for a given fiscal year and the President would issue a sequestration order to implement such cuts. The Court held that the power vested in the Comptroller General was an executive power. Therefore, section 251 of [Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985] was found unconstitutional because it reserved for Congress, via the Comptroller General, the power to execute laws.

Following the Court’s decision, Congress relied on the fallback procedures contained in section 274 of [Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985].[1] That section provided for the creation of a Temporary Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, composed of all members of the House and Senate Budget Committees. Such joint committee, pursuant to the statute, was tasked with receiving the same budgetary reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget as would have been provided to the Comptroller General, and propounding a joint resolution embodying those reports. The joint resolution implemented the cuts declared null and void by the Court.


[1] The Bowsher decision gave Congress 60 days to enact corrective legislation in response to the decision. Such corrective legislation was entitled to expedited procedures under section 258 of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. For the announcement by the Speaker of the creation of the joint committee on deficit reduction, see 132 Cong. Rec. 16316, 99th Cong. 2d Sess., July 14, 1986. For House passage of the joint resolution enacting fiscal year 1986 cuts, see 132 Cong. Rec 16881, 16882, 16887, 16888, 99th Cong. 2d Sess., July 17, 1986 (H. J. Res. 672).

[Deschler-Brown-Johnson Precedents Ch. 41 §§ 26, pp. 337-338]

Joint Explanatory Statement for the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990


The Conferees, in their preparation of the  Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, expressed these reservations regarding the impact of Bowsher v. Synar:


The conferees recognize that, because of the constraints imposed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowsher v. Synar, the conference agreement vests substantial power to estimate the costs of legislation with the Office of Management and Budget. The conferees are concerned that the Office of Management and Budget has not always shown complete objectivity in its estimates. The conferees urge the Congress to scrutinize the scorekeeping of the Office of Management and Budget as that Office implements the procedures under this conference agreement. The conferees considered procedures under which Congress would enact into law Congressional Budget Office cost estimates as part of any spending legislation. Should the Office of Management and Budget abuse its scorekeeping power, the conferees believe that the Congress should adopt such procedures at that time.

Conference Report to Accompany the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, H. Rept. 101-964, 101st Cong., 2d Sess. 1151 (1990), p. 1172.


Borrowing Authority



See also:

Signing Statement of Ronald Reagan on the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Reaffirmation Act of 1987. This statement sets forth President Reagan’s reservations on the Constitutionality of BBEDCRA.

Bowsher v. Synar, 478 U.S. 714 (1986) Justia)

Kent College Supreme Court Website Oyez – Bowsher v. Synar

Due to rising government budget deficits during the first term of the Reagan Administration, Congress passed [BBEDCA 1985]. The act was designed to eliminate the federal budget deficit by restricting spending during fiscal years 1986 through 1991. Under the law, if maximum allowable deficit amounts were exceeded, automatic cuts, as requested by the Comptroller General, would go into effect.”

Bowsher v. Synar  – General Summary in Relation to the Chadha Case

Immigration and Naturalization Service v Chadha(1983)

Facts: In one section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Congress authorized either House of Congress to invalidate and suspend deportation rulings of the United States Attorney General. Plaintiff Chadha had stayed in the U.S. past his visa deadline. Though Chadha conceded that he was deportable, an immigration judge suspended his deportation. The House of Representatives voted without debate or recorded vote to deport Chadha. This case was decided together with United States House of Representatives v. Chadha and United States Senate v. Chadha.

Holding: The Court held that the particular section of the Act in question did violate the Constitution. Recounting the debates of the Constitutional Convention over issues of bicameralism and separation of powers, Chief Justice Burger concluded that even though the Act would have enhanced governmental efficiency, it violated the “explicit constitutional standards” regarding lawmaking and congressional authority.

Bowsher v Synar (1986)

Facts: In the face of increasing Federal Government budget deficits in the early 1980s, Congress passed the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. This Act was designed to eliminate the federal budget deficit by restricting spending during fiscal years 1986 through 1991. Under its terms, it set maximum allowable deficit amounts, which, if exceeded, triggered automatic cuts, per the order of the Comptroller General. This case was decided together with O’Neill v. Synar and United States Senate v. Synar.

Holding: The Court found that the duties which the Congress delegated to the Comptroller General did violate the doctrine of separation of powers and were unconstitutional. Chief Justice Burger wrote the opinion using a two-step process to arrive at his conclusion. First, in examining the statute’s definition of the Comptroller General’s office relating to the Congressional power of removal, Burger argued that this officer was within the legislative branch. Second, the functions the Comptroller General was responsible for carrying out under the law, he was executing the laws, which is included in the Constitutional responsibilities of the Executive Branch.

Bowsher v. Synar – Dissent

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:

The actual art of governing under our Constitution does not and cannot conform to judicial definitions of the power of any of its branches based on isolated clauses or even single Articles torn from context. While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government….

The majority’s conclusion rests on the rigid dogma that, outside of the impeachment process, any “direct congressional role in the removal of officers charged with the execution of the laws . . . is inconsistent with separation of powers.” Reliance on such an unyielding principle to strike down a statute posing no real danger of aggrandizement of congressional power is extremely misguided and insensitive to our constitutional role. The wisdom of vesting “executive” powers in an officer removable by joint resolution may indeed be debatable – as may be the wisdom of the entire scheme of permitting an unelected official to revise the budget enacted by Congress – but such matters are for the most part to be worked out between the Congress and the President through the legislative process, which affords each branch ample opportunity to defend its interests. The Act vesting budget-cutting authority in the Comptroller General represents Congress’ judgment that the delegation of such authority to counteract ever-mounting deficits is “necessary and proper” to the exercise of the powers granted the Federal Government by the Constitution; and the President’s approval of the statute signifies his unwillingness to reject the choice made by Congress. Under such circumstances, the role of this Court should be limited to determining whether the Act so alters the balance of authority among the branches of government as to pose a genuine threat to the basic division between the lawmaking power and the power to execute the law. Because I see no such threat, I cannot join the Court in striking down the Act.

I dissent.


Borrowing Authority