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Why has Brazil’s lower house stopped voting on bills?

. Nov 13, 2020
brazil lower house House ordinary sitting. Photo: Michel Jesus/CdD

It has been over a month since the Brazilian lower house last voted on a bill in Congress, approving changes to the country’s traffic code in late September. Since then, legislators have only voted on provisional decrees issued by the president or requests unrelated to actual policymaking. As The Brazilian Report showed last month, numerous party squabbles have stalled the works of congressional committees — a key part of the legislative process.

Earlier this week, Speaker Rodrigo Maia said that unless the agenda is cleared, the country will “explode in January.” He added: “The U.S. Dollar will reach BRL 7, long-term interest rates will skyrocket, and hyperinflation is a possibility.”

</p> <p>In response, the government’s whip in the House, Congressman Rodrigo Barros, said a deal has been reached with the so-called “<a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/07/31/brazil-big-center-2018-president/">Big Center</a>” (an amalgam of ideology-free groups), and some priority bills could be voted in the two weeks following the municipal elections.</p> <p>This paralysis of Brazil&#8217;s Congress has become the norm rather than an exception in recent decades — as parties increasingly try to obstruct legislative works, rather than submitting requests to speed up processes.</p> <h2>How obstruction became commonplace in Congress</h2> <p>As the chart below shows, two types of legislative tools have been prevalent from 1991 to 2010: DVSs, which dismember bills and force lawmakers to vote each aspect of them separately, and RETs, which remove bills from the voting agenda.&nbsp;</p> <p>Other legislative tools displayed in the chart include motions to fast track bills. However, these are scarce: only 15 percent of votes within the period consisted of attempts to speed up the legislative process. Conversely, 53 percent of votes are focused on procedures to delay the approval of bills.&nbsp;</p> <p>Thus, the legislative hiatus we are observing follows an existing trend in the lower house.</p> <h4 class="has-text-align-center">Legislative requests per year in the House (1991-2010)</h4> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="520" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/house-paralysis-1024x520.png" alt="Why has Brazil's lower house stopped voting on bills?" class="wp-image-52660" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/house-paralysis-1024x520.png 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/house-paralysis-300x152.png 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/house-paralysis-768x390.png 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/house-paralysis-600x305.png 600w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/house-paralysis.png 1352w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Source: Taeko Hiroi and Lucio Renno (2014)</figcaption></figure> <p>Instead of placing blame solely on disgruntled lawmakers, we should also consider how the nature of the Bolsonaro administration’s coalition makes obstructing legislative processes a feasible option.&nbsp;</p> <p>Political scientists Taeko Hiroi and Lucio Renno have noted that legislators are more likely to obstruct a government coalition’s agenda when (1) congressmen believe they are not receiving enough benefits for being part of the coalition, or (2) when the <a href="https://congressoemfoco.uol.com.br/governo/exclusivo-os-12-partidos-que-formam-a-base-fiel-do-governo-na-camara/">coalition lacks coordination and cohesion</a>.</p> <p>The second condition arguably precedes the first. While the Bolsonaro administration has recently started building legislative support, its coalition is not stable. Moreover, it is not clear what members of Congress stand to gain by siding with the government.&nbsp;</p> <p>Given these conditions, it is unsurprising that a group of legislators would obstruct an agenda that contains several bills of interest to the government. One such proposal on the docket is the reform of Brazil&#8217;s public sector, which was introduced by the executive branch in early September and has stalled since.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bolsonaro administration should realize that the advancement of this and other policies depends on better coordination and greater cohesion in the House. The administration would be wise to invest in its own legislative coalition.

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Beatriz Rey

Beatriz Rey is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University and a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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