WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court told Congress today it must do its own dirty work, ruling 7 to 2 that the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget law's plan for automatic cuts to wipe out federal deficits is unconstitutional.
The court's action, coming on the final day of its 1985-86 term, returns to Congress the politically unpleasant task of specifying cuts in programs dear to voters, rather than allowing an unelected official the power to order across-the-board reductions.
The justices, in a ruling written by retiring Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, affirmed a federal court ruling that found unconstitutional the key provision of the law that turned over part of Congress' budget powers to the comptroller general, the appointed head of the independent General Accounting Office.
Invalidation Not Total
The court's action does not invalidate the entire Gramm-Rudman law, but any cuts to meet the annual deficit limits set by the law will have to be approved by the House and Senate in a joint resolution.
"By placing the responsibility for execution of the (Gramm-Rudman) 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," Burger said for the court. "The Constitution does not permit such intrusion."
Burger was joined in his opinion by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Lewis F. Powell Jr., William J. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor, and Justices John Paul Stevens and Thurgood Marshall concurred in the ruling. Justices Byron R. White and Harry A. Blackmun dissented.
In his dissent, White called the court's ruling a "distressingly formalistic view of separation of powers."
He said in past years he has expressed his "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."
Reacting to the decision, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.)--who sponsored the legislation along with Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.)--said they will immediately offer "Gramm-Rudman-Hollings 2," which would attempt to make the law constitutional by eliminating the ability of Congress to remove the comptroller general from office.
Gramm Not Giving Up
"Those who have fought so hard to restore fiscal sanity will not allow Congress to get off the hook on its commitment to balance the federal budget," Gramm said, adding he hoped the new version of the law could be approved by Aug. 1.
The high court decision, Gramm said, only dealt with the "narrow separation of powers conflict," and he said that under the new version, the office of comptroller general "will become roughly equivalent to several agencies, including the Federal Reserve Board, which are functionally independent of the President and Congress."
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas noted Congress had a responsibility to balance the budget even before Gramm-Rudman and added, "The court's decision should in no way deter us from doing what we have to do--make the tough choices necessary to get the deficit down to zero as quickly and responsibly as possible."
The much-anticipated ruling came 22 days after ABC News reported that the court was about to strike down the law. That report touched off a flurry of speculation about the future of Gramm-Rudman and the source of an apparent rare "leak" providing advance word of a court decision.