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Supreme Court reins in congressional veto power

By cutting off Congress's check on government agencies, via the ''legislative veto,'' has the US Supreme Court inhibited the democratic process? This constitutional debate, involving separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, is almost certain to heat up. This follows a landmark decision by the high court on Thursday striking down the use of the so-called legislative veto on grounds that it obstructs the president's power to run the government.

The 7-to-2 ruling could invalidate about 200 laws that over the years have been aimed at checking agency rule-making. Involved have been such issues as war powers, consumer product safety, immigration regulations, and labor-related questions.

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The practical effect of the court's decision? ''It could lead Congress to delegate less power to administrative agencies in the first place'' says constitutional specialist, Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard University. Professor Tribe says lawmakers have often relinquished authority to agencies with the assurance that they could ultimately pull it back via the legislative veto. Now they can no longer do this.

He suggests that as a result, federal lawmakers may start to rewrite laws to include more specific and tougher guidelines for government agencies.

''This is a broad decision. It apparently leaves no loopholes,'' Tribe says. ''It means that the major device Congress has used since the 1950s to circumvent the Constitution's basic structure is no longer available.''

Many analysts are calling Thursday's decision the most important separation of powers verdict in three decades.

The case in question involved a veto by the House of Representatives of a US attorney general's decision not to deport a student from Kenya who had violated the terms of his visa. The Supreme Court took the case on appeal from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, which had struck down the legislative veto.

Some legal observers thought the high court - which for the first time was considering the constitutionality of this type of veto - might opt for a narrow interpretation. It didn't.

''(This) decision strikes down in one fell swoop provisions in more laws enacted in Congress than the court has cumulatively invalidated in its history'' Justice Byron R. White said in dissent.

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But Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, writing for the majority of the court, argued that in order to maintain the separation of powers, ''the carefully defined limits on the power of each branch must not be eroded.''

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., while agreeing with the majority, said ''the breadth of this holding gives one pause.''

Every US president since Herbert Hoover has opposed the legislative veto. In the current case, Reagan administration lawyers contended that this veto alters the Constitution by vesting ''dangerous concentration of power in one branch.'' Congress is making new law without any presidential approval, they charged.

But lawyers for Congress maintained that the veto was needed to control federal agencies who exceed their authority in making rules to regulate industry and others. They also argued that the veto has been used in much the same way as the historic practice of introducing special legislation to suspend deportations.

House lawyer Stanley Brand says invalidating the veto could lead to ''more heavy-handed and all-encompassing restrictions'' by Congress. He suggests that lawmakers now will simply cut off funds to agencies whose rules they want to restrict.

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