In comments, Tzintzuntzan asks about the procedural rules in the Colombian congress. What are the rules by which the legislature makes the rules? Who controls them?
This is something often overlooked when Americans examine foreign countries. It’s an odd oversight, since procedural rules define American politics more than most places. In the Senate, the need to get 60% to pass anything is a procedural rule. In the House, the Speaker’s near dictatorial control over what bills get to the floor is a procedural rule. And don’t get me started on the baroque rules governing the conference committees that reconcile bills passed by both houses. In short, American politics is entirely incomprehensible if you don’t understand the procedural rules.
The same applies (albeit generally to a lesser extent) to other countries. If you don’t understand the rules by which the legislature makes the rules, then you can’t understand their politics.
Fortunately, Royce Carroll (Rice) and Mónica Pachón (Uniandes) have studied the issue for Colombia. Who controls the legislative agenda? Where are the vetoes?
The U.S. president, as Barack Obama knows all too well, cannot introduce legislation directly. Now, it is usually easy for a President to get a sympathetic legislator to introduce a bill, but he or she cannot force Congress to vote on it. Speaker Boehner or a coalition of forty Senators can kill anything before it even comes up for a vote.
Not so in Colombia! Here, the President can directly introduce legislation. Article 200 of the constitution (English here, Spanish here, and note that in context “gobierno” is used in the British sense and ought to be translated in American English as “administration”) lays out the authority:
- Help draft the laws, present bills through ministers, exercise the right of objecting to them, and approve them in accordance with the Constitution.
- Convoke the Congress to special sessions.
- Present the national development and public investment plan, in accordance with the provisions in Article 150.
- Send the budget bill of revenues and expenditures to the Chamber of Representatives.
This article has been interpreted very broadly.
In addition, the President can force votes on his or her bills within 30 days. In fact, they can force a vote within 15 days by invoking a joint session of Congress. Better yet, they can skip committees and insure that the House and Senate debate the same initial version of the bill.
But there is a snag. Bills can be amended on the floor. So the President needs to pay close attention to the legislative process in both chambers. If the House and Senate amend bills differently, then a conference committee will determine its final shape ... and the President of the Republic has no direct authority over the committee.
So who does? The answer: each chamber’s three-person Board of Directors. They are elected to one-year terms, by secret ballot. Each Board consists of one president and two vice-presidents, with (by tradition) the president coming from the majority coalition and the veeps from the largest minority parties. These guys serve pick the conference committee, and these are the guys that the President needs on board to get his or her bills through the Congress. In fact, they pick all committees, so getting any bills through Congress requires their assent.
The board presidents are, to get back to Tzin’s question, the equivalent of the U.S. Speaker. The one-year limit, however, insures that the Colombian congress produces no Willie Browns. Me, I think that is a bad thing, but mileage may vary.
What is the upshot? First, presidents in Colombia have a good-but-not-perfect legislative track record. (See page 17.) President Pastrana got 85% of his major bills passed. President Uribe got 79% passed in his first term, and 57% in his second. Presidential bills generally, however, take a lot longer than 30 days to pass: the average is actually 224.
Congress, however, maintains a lot of influence over the process. Carroll and Pachón calculated the proportion of characters that changed between the first version of a bill and the last. For presidential initiatives, 54% of the bill (among passed laws) changed throughout the process. For legislative initiatives, however, the proportion was only 26%. (See page 20.)
The unanswered question, however, is why presidential bills change more than Congressional ones. There are three hypotheses.
Hypothesis 1: The conference committees run the show. They change presidential bills more than ones introduced by their fellow congresspeople.
Hypothesis 1 is probably wrong, or at least incomplete. If it were correct, the changes to presidential bills should mostly happen in the conference committee. Conference committees, however, change only 14% of presidential bills. Most changes occur on the floor.
Hypothesis 2: The only kinds of congressional bills that can pass are uncontroversial motherhood issues.
Hypothesis 2 is also probably wrong. It is true that congressional bills usually fail: none passed under Pastrana and only 36% in Uribe’s first term. But congresspeople introduced such significant (and successful) pieces of legislation as the Violence Against Women Act, the Congressional Ethics Act, and a law allowing the confiscation of property from convicted criminals.
Hypothesis 3: The Board of Directors exercise control early on over congressional bills, but though means other than the conference committee. (Of course, the threat of an unfriendly conference committee might lead the executive to roll over on amendments earlier in the process.)
This one seems to fit the facts. The Board of Directors (in Spanish, the “mesa directiva”) are very powerful. Their power is limited, however, by the fact that they serve only one-year terms.
The upshot is that the President of Colombia can work even with the kinds of fragmented Congresses produced by Colombian electoral law as long as he can get a friendly Board of Directors. He can even work with the Senate. Barack Obama should be so lucky.
Tzin, does this answer your question?
But this is not to say that all is well with Colombian politics. More on that if there is interest.