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Why are Brazilian lawmakers seen in such a negative light?

. Jan 18, 2021
congress popularity bolsonaro Protest in favor of President Jair Bolsonaro and against federal lawmakers. Photo: Tatiane Silva/Shutterstock

An increasing share of Brazilian citizens has a negative opinion of Congress. A poll by PoderData from December 2020 indicates that 38 percent of those interviewed described legislators’ work as “bad” or “terrible,” as opposed to 31 percent in August of the same year. Only 13 percent of citizens deemed Congress’ performance as “good” or “excellent,” three percentage points less than in August.

Indeed, that the approval of Congress would decrease while the Legislative branch — and not the Executive — is leading the country through a deadly pandemic seems counterintuitive.

But what explains this mismatch between public opinion and actual performance?

</p> <p>Congress has been the main driver behind pandemic-related laws. As <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/12/18/government-bills-stall-in-year-of-congressional-activism-in-brazil/">shown by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong></a>, nearly half of the 133 bills passed by the Legislative branch in 2020 were linked to the impacts of Covid-19. Legislators proposed <a href="https://aulablog.net/2021/01/12/brazil-congress-shows-leadership-on-covid-19/">96 percent of the 2,377 pandemic-related bills</a>, and Legislative- and Executive-sponsored bills had similar approval rates — 52 and 47 percent, respectively. Crucially, the coronavirus emergency aid program — by far the most important Covid-19 relief bill — was sponsored by legislators. However, public opinion of Congress has still decreased.</p> <p>There are four possible explanations for this mismatch. First, citizens are more likely to give credit for important policies — such as those related to the pandemic — to the Executive branch. Until the early 2000s, the presidency was the primary player behind every major policy reform in Brazilian politics. Congressional activism is a recent phenomenon, and as such, it is largely unknown to Brazilian citizens.&nbsp;</p> <p>Second, lawmakers are more often than not negatively portrayed by the Brazilian media, which typically depicts them as either corrupt or lazy. This is likely to have a deep impact on citizens’ perception of congressional performance. For instance, journalists who encounter an empty House of Representatives on a Friday afternoon may infer that legislators simply do not work on these days, which is inaccurate.</p> <p>In fact, the majority of legislative work takes place far from the voting floor. And while the chamber may be deserted on Fridays, this is usually the days on which representatives and senators return to their constituencies — from personal experience on these trips, they typically involve agendas jam-packed with meetings and other commitments. Of course, there are lawmakers who leave a lot to be desired in terms of their dedication to legislative activities, but these are exceptions to the rule.​</p> <h2>Congress ineffectiveness and corruption</h2> <p>However, another issue which contributes to the negative public perception of Congress is that much of lawmakers&#8217; work is ineffective. My research shows that only about a third of legislators in the last two congressional sessions actually tried to be effective in their endeavors toward approving bills. Many factors explain this pattern, and <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/12/04/brazilian-congressmen-less-tempted-to-change-jobs/">recently discussed one of them</a>: many members of Congress are more inclined to seek local office, as opposed to making a career in federal politics.&nbsp;</p> <p>These legislators are likely to be investing more time in making connections with subnational levels of government than actual lawmaking. This is hardly surprising when we analyze political parties&#8217; selection processes for congressional office. In Brazil, these processes are often nonexistent. Parties rarely pay attention to the profile or merits of the candidates they select to run for Congress. Thus, improving the lawmaking performance of legislators would involve restructuring their institutional incentives.&nbsp;</p> <p>Finally, the negative image of members of Congress could also be rooted in perceptions of corruption. Newspaper <a href="https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/eleicoes,13-do-congresso-eleito-e-alvo-de-investigacoes,70002585812">Estadão</a> estimates that one-third of current federal legislators are under investigation for corruption, money laundering, or other criminal offenses. A public opinion poll conducted by NGO <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/para-81-dos-brasileiros-partidos-sao-corruptos-ou-muito-corruptos-8968258">Transparência Brasil</a> suggests that 72 percent of Brazilian citizens view Congress as “corrupt or very corrupt.”&nbsp;</p> <p>Citizens may associate corruption with poor performance and, as a consequence, judge the work of Congress as “bad” or “terrible.”

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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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