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Forcing Congress to Do Its Job

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law on Wednesday, there will be some rooting on the sidelines for a watershed constitutional ruling on the role of a century-old staple of American government. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and members of the Reagan Administration are hoping for a broad court attack on the concept of the independent regulatory agency.

The Administration and its allies make no secret of their dislike for agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and Interstate Commerce Commission. In the wrong hands, such agencies have been known to meddle with the free market and make decisions that safeguard the interests of consumers. Members of these bodies are appointed by the President, but for specific terms that prevent their removal at will by a new Administration. The appointments are staggered to protect the agencies from the whims of political change.

The anti-regulators have seen Gramm-Rudman as the opening for their cause since Feb. 7, when a special three-judge panel held that a key provision of the law violates the separation of powers. The judges ruled that the comptroller general should not have authority to direct specific budget cuts because, while he is appointed by the President, he can be removed only by Congress. This, the court said, is an abridgement of executive authority. The court agreed that the issue was a “relative technicality,” but added that little technicalities can multiply into big constitutional decisions.

Sen. Gramm relishes this historic opportunity to “settle the whole separation-of-powers issue.” In this instance, however, it is appropriate for the Supreme Court to limit itself to the issue at hand. It should uphold the lower court, and at the same time force Congress to do what it should have done all along: Accept its constitutional responsibility for adopting a prudent federal budget.

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