A federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia, acting in a case raising legal questions similar to those raised by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law, has ruled that the Constitution allows the comptroller general to take actions generally reserved for executive branch officials.

The case involves the comptroller's authority to review disputes between contractors and federal agencies under the 1984 Competition in Contracting Act.

The Justice Department had argued -- as it has in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings case -- that because the comptroller, who heads the General Accounting Office, can be removed only by Congress, he is part of the legislative branch. His role under the contracting law was unconstitutional, the department argued, because it gave him duties that can only legally be performed by executive branch officials subject to firing by the president.

The three-judge panel disagreed. Two judges said the comptroller is neither part of the executive branch nor part of the legislative branch but rather part of a "headless fourth branch" of government. The third judge said the comptroller is part of the legislative branch, but the entire panel agreed that his power to review contracts under the 1984 law is appropriate.

The Philadelphia panel's conclusions run counter to a ruling by a three-judge panel here Feb. 7 that struck down a key part of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget law. The panel ruled that the automatic budget-cutting provisions were unconstitutional because the comptroller, to whom the law gives key executive branch decision-making power, is part of the legislative branch.

Steven R. Ross, general counsel to the clerk of the House, a proponent of the "automatic trigger," said the Philadelphia court's ruling would be helpful when the budget case is argued April 23 before the Supreme Court.

The ruling, Ross said, "added legitimacy to arguments either rejected or brushed aside" by the panel here in February.

But Alan Morrison, who represents a group of House members challenging the budget law, disagreed. Morrison said the ruling will have "very little impact" because the "net power" given the comptroller under the contracting law is very limited, while the comptroller's power under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings is substantial.