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Lawyers for Reagan, Congress Clash on Gramm-Rudman

April 23, 1986|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration clashed with Congress today in a Supreme Court confrontation over the validity of the Gramm-Rudman Act requiring a balanced budget by 1991.

Under brisk questioning from the justices, both sides engaged in a highly technical debate with far-reaching practical consequences.

Four senators, including the act's sponsors, and 16 House members reserved seats in the packed courtroom as the justices began sorting out the issues in the important conflict over the powers of the executive and legislative branches.

The court, expediting consideration of the dispute, is expected to announce its decision by early July.

Charles Fried, the Administration's top courtroom lawyer, challenged the central provision of the law that empowers the comptroller general to determine required levels of deficit reduction.

'Entirely Novel' Powers

"Here we have an officer who gives orders to the President," said Fried. "These powers are entirely novel."

He argued that the role of the comptroller general is unlawful because he performs executive functions under Gramm-Rudman but may not be fired by the President.

"This grant of authority violates the Constitution," Fried said.

Lawyers for the House, the Senate and the comptroller general defended Gramm-Rudman.

Michael Davidson, the Senate's legal counsel, said the comptroller general performs as "a scorekeeper" under Gramm-Rudman and the real power over deficit reduction is retained by the President and Congress.

"The law, not the comptroller general, determines the desirable limit of deficit financing," Davidson said.

Steven R. Ross, representing the House, said the comptroller general's function was the product of painstaking political compromise.

The comptroller general was chosen for his role under Gramm-Rudman because of his independence, Ross said, "in order to ensure these calculations were walled off from political considerations."

Several justices suggested the comptroller general is actually a legislative officer, not an independent agent.

"Wouldn't you concede the historic role of the comptroller general is an employee of the legislative branch?" Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asked Ross.

Justice Gets a Laugh

Justice William H. Rehnquist, recalling his days as a Justice Department lawyer, drew laughter from the crowded courtroom when he said, "If the President wanted a favorable opinion, he went to the attorney general. If Congress wanted a favorable opinion, it went to the comptroller general."

Lloyd Cutler, representing the comptroller general, said the powers granted the comptroller general are not unique. There are numerous federal agencies that are headed by officers who serve fixed terms and may not be removed at will by the President.

Cutler said if the Supreme Court invalidates the Gramm-Rudman law "you would take over the side" many other major federal agencies, including the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Communications Commission.

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