Tag Archives: congress

Reviewing the New Brazilian President’s 1st Semester: Politics

15 Jul

This past Wednesday night Dilma Rousseff threw a cocktail party to celebrate the end of her government’s first semester and the beggining of the National Legislature’s mid July break. According to LatinNews.com, 17 of 38 ministers made an appearance, as did the Presidents of both Chambers of Congress and the Vice President. The event began at 7:30, but by 9pm most invitees had already left. The lukewarm turnout and hasty departures reflect a palpable lack of enthusiasm for Rousseff’s performance after six months in power.

To her credit, the President has kept the economy buoyant while Europe and the U.S. tank, and she has added continuity to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s achievements by expanding and inventing new social programs, such as the new Program to Fight Extreme Misery (Programa de Combate à Miseria Extrema). But apart from these significant bright spots, the President’s policy performance has been halting at best and weak at worst. Overall, the clearest trend has been to privilege the unity of her legislative coalition at the cost of policy priorities, ultimately making a success of neither.

The Coalitional Problem

Notwithstanding the largest majority coalition in Brazil’s democratic history, the president has had extreme difficulty ensuring congress’ support. Supposed allies have disobeyed and blackmailed Rousseff, weakening or delaying governmental policy priorities, particularly those critical to Brazil’s future sustainability and stability— Forestry Legislation (Código Forestal), the establishment of a Truth Commission, and the passage of a Freedom of Information Law, among others.

On the other hand, Congress has merrily passed measures to increase opacity in budgetary accounting, as was the case with decree 527/11, ostensibly designed to expedite contracting for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. One of the few members of the congressional opposition, PSDB party leader, Aecio Neves, commented:

In all, absolutely all modern societies, transparency or the advance of transparency is seen as an instrument to defend [the rights of] society. Here we are taking a contrary path, employing the argument that we’re in a hurry, as if we had just now discovered, over the last couple of months, that we would host the World Cup and the Olympics.

The Corruption Problem

Despite Congress’ role in obstructing the President, resisting transparency, and supporting opacity, it has predictably blamed the President for a lackluster first semester. “In this first semester,” according to the President of the Senate, José Sarney, “the crises that emerged were all within the Executive.”

It is true that Rousseff has had to replace no less than four ministers in her first six months in office, including two as a result of major corruption scandals. First to go was Antonio Palocci, the President’s Chief of State and congressional fixer. It was the Folha de São Paulo that discovered a multiplication of 20 in the político’s net worth over four years. Apartments and other assets had been registered under false names.

Second was Rousseff’s Transport Minister, Alfredo Nascimento, a coalitional cabinet posting for the PR, an important ally. Nascimento’s ministry and PR congressional leaders had skimmed untold amounts from the massive public transport projects in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Nascimento then had the gall to ask Rousseff for an additional $6.5 billion because of budget shortfalls.

While the Transport Minister’s entourage was forced to resign, it appeared that Nascimento himself had escaped the axe. Then it was discovered that the net worth of the Minister’s son had increased from somewhere under US$130,000 to around US$20 million in a matter of a few short years. The Minister’s resignation—which Rousseff should have ordered from the very beginning—soon followed suit.

It is widely suspected that the leak responsible for this scandal originated within the President’s sphere of influence. Rousseff is viewed to support a housekeeping of corrupt rent-seekers, many of whom, like Nascimento, are hangovers from President Lula’s two administrations. When Rousseff finally did choose a replacement minister for Nascimento, the PR appeared to be unhappy with choices made; this past Wednesday it boycotted a lunch for PT allies in the Lower House.

The need to pander to congressional allies is the critical reason Rousseff has not acted with greater decisiveness. Some, including the author, originally thought that what Rousseff lacked in negotiating ability, she would make up for in fearsome authority. Yet with congressional legislators disloyal to ideology and local constituencies, negotiation through pork and positions seems to be one of few alternatives.

Rousseff’s decision not to spend last year’s residual budget funds is illustrative of what can happen when legislators are denied resources. When Rousseff refused to release funds for pork barrel spending, the Lower House conducted a boycott; not even her own party would vote for critical health legislation until Rousseff caved-in, disbursing the US$3 billion she had sought to save taxpayers. Such defeats illustrate that Rousseff still has much to learn about legislative hardball.

Next post will review Rousseff’s performance on policy.

Brazil’s Congress: Paying for Consensus

29 Jun

Brazilians have a saying, that every corruption scandal “ends in pizza.” The malfeasant and the enforcer settle things by sharing a meal and leaving behind what brought them together in the first place. Unlike other Latin American elites, the Brazilian elite peculiarly tend towards consensus as opposed to hot-headed conflict. Rather than incriminate each other, they let each other off. Rather than fight, they separate.

The Brazilian Congress: Consensus or Collusion?

Parties Galore

There is no place that reflects this behavior more powerfully than the Brazilian National Legislature. No one has ever been legally sanctioned for an ethics violation in the Brazilian Congress, despite legislators’ infamous shenanigans. Call this facet of political inaction, “impunity through consensus.”

The cost of making laws in Brazil provides yet another example. More than 85 percent of all legislation passed by Congress originates in the Executive Branch, but legislators think themselves important enough that they raised their salaries a hefty 62 percent on one of the last days of the 2010 legislature. That means that legislators in Latin America’s most expensive parliament (on a per capita basis) and in its most unequal country, now bring home approximately US$170,000 per year (R$26.7K/month), when a person earning the minimum wage earns less than US$3500 annually (R$545/month).

Assigning Blame for Blackmail?

When there are 23 parties to point the finger at, it’s kind of difficult to assign blame. What’s more, nine out of ten parties don’t have a chance of winning a presidential election, so they’re willing to take a hit to their reputations once in a while. Hence Brazil’s Congress understandably gets away with things that simply would not fly in other democracies.

Today, the government’s majority coalition in the Chamber of Deputies blackmailed the President it nominally supports. Legislators threatened to bring Congress to a standstill if  the President does not disburse the remainder of the 2009 budget, what they refer to here as “the rest to pay” (“restos a pagar”). Because of the slow pace of contracting, previous years’ budgets leave residuals. This year it’s almost US$3 billion dollars, or $4.6 billion Reales. These funds are typically used to buy political support through pork-barrel spending, but Rousseff declared she would end the disbursement of contracts on June 30th. Party leaders, however, warn that this course of action will be met by a general strike: the President’s urgent legislation will simply not be voted on. This legislation includes the infamous decree, 527/11, which aims to expedite building and infrastructure contracts for the 2012 World Cup and 2016 Olympics (at the cost of transparency).

Demanding pork in return for not stonewalling the President’s priorities pays homage to traditions of consensus-making: most every legislator in the governing coalition is holding strong to the threat of blackmail. At least they have not threatened to vote against the President’s priorities.

Avoiding Internal Conflicts: Start a New Party

The inertial pull toward consensus is so strong that instead of having parties rife with infighting, you have breakaways– new parties, which eventually cooperate with the parties they left, forming voting blocks. There are now 23 parties in the Chamber of Deputies and counting. The illustration presented includes a few salient voting blocks.

The newest breakaway party is the PDB, which split from the DEM following its involvement in a vote-buying racket in the Federal District. Now Marina Silva may start her own party, reports the Globo. Silva is the Green Party (PV) candidate who garnered more than 20 million votes in the 2010 presidential election, placing a solid third. The presidential candidate and her allies object to the way the party is run: the Greens’ 12-year president, José Luiz Penna, controls appointments and chooses candidates undemocratically, without  primaries. Perhaps more importantly, Silva objects to the alliances the PV has been forced to make in order to exercise any political clout.

Consensus at a Cost

Unsavory alliances are the price to be paid for a party system that privileges consensus over other priorities, such as accountability and responsiveness. The largest party in the Chamber of Deputies has 17 percent of the vote (the PT), forcing the President’s party to make deals with multiple others. Loyalty tends to be skin-deep. Political scientists have blamed the pork-based consensus-building process of the Brazilian Congress for bloated budgets and slow policy-making. The perks of a system built on consensus may also explain why legislators have resisted accountability measures, such a freedom of information law. Senators have preferred to cloak Brazil in secrecy than than reveal past and present abuses. They defend the  peace, the reigning consensus– but at a great, great cost.