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The crucial importance of the congressional leadership election

. Jan 26, 2021
congress brazil speaker election The House floor, emptied during the pandemic. Photo: Maryanna Oliveira/Câmara dos Deputados

On February 1, Brazilian federal lawmakers will make arguably the most consequential political decision of the year when they elect new leadership boards in each chamber of Congress.

In the lower house, there are nine candidates for the highly coveted Speaker role, with Arthur Lira and Baleia Rossi being the current frontrunners. The former has the support of President Jair Bolsonaro, while the latter is backed by incumbent House Speaker Rodrigo Maia. Across the hallway, there are four names in the hat for Senate President: the Bolsonaro-backed Rodrigo Pacheco seems poised to win the vote, but may face stiff competition from first-term senator Simone Tebet.

</p> <p>While perhaps smacking of inside baseball, it cannot be understated just how important congressional leadership elections are to the functioning of Brazil&#8217;s democracy.&nbsp;</p> <p>The vote dominates the public agenda at the beginning of the year and candidates spend large sums of money on their campaigns, jetting around the country, despite the fact they only need to win over their peers in Congress.</p> <h2>Congress leaders decide which bills are voted on, and when</h2> <p>The influence of congressional leadership on Brazil&#8217;s political ecosystem works on two major levels. First, the House Speaker and Senate President play a key role in policymaking. Legislative power in Brazil is centralized in the hands of the leaders of each chamber and each has incomparable agenda-setting powers.</p> <p>The Speaker determines the order of the day for each legislative session, as well as the broader agenda for the month. In practice, this means the head of the House or Senate has the power to decide which proposals go to a vote and when.</p> <p>To establish the agenda in the lower house, the Speaker must first meet with whips from all represented parties. No such practice exists in the Senate, giving the Senate President even more power over what goes on the docket.</p> <p>The House Speaker and Senate President may also call extraordinary sessions to decide on deadlocked votes. This maneuver directly impacts on the legislative process, as committees must immediately stop analyzing bills as soon as extraordinary sessions begin. Furthermore, for the House Speaker, extraordinary sessions allow them complete control over the voting agenda by skipping the weekly meeting with party whips.</p> <p>Political scientist Fernando Saboia has shown that the number of these extraordinary sessions called in the lower house increased 32 percentage points between 2006 and 2016, when they accounted for 84 percent of all sittings in the House of Representatives. Substantively, this means that the House has been operating mostly through extraordinary floor sessions.</p> <p>In conjunction with party whips, congressional leaders also have the power to assign bills to committees and create <em>ad hoc</em> committees to analyze issues of particular importance. In this regard, one unintended effect of power centralization is delay: in 2017 alone, Fernando Saboia found that 193 proposals had stalled, awaiting the assignment of a special committee.&nbsp;</p> <h2>House Speaker holds the sword of Damocles</h2> <p>Beyond their immense powers over policymaking, congressional leaders are crucial for Executive accountability. At any time, Congress may open impeachment proceedings against a sitting president, and it is the House Speaker who holds the cards in this process. The leader of the lower house has sole jurisdiction over accepting or rejecting formal impeachment requests.</p> <p>Throughout history, the parliamentary removal of Brazilian presidents has only been made possible with the acquiescence of the House Speaker. For instance, the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff was orchestrated by then-Speaker Eduardo Cunha.</p> <p>One year later, Ms. Rousseff&#8217;s replacement —&nbsp;President Michel Temer — faced dozens of <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2017/10/26/brazils-president-temer-indictment-power/">impeachment requests</a> of his own. However, Speaker Rodrigo Maia — who stepped in after Eduardo Cunha was himself impeached under corruption charges — shielded the president by ignoring pleas for Mr. Temer&#8217;s removal, encapsulating the importance of presidents having the House Speaker in their corner.</p> <p>Not to mention that the House Speaker and Senate President are second and third in the line of presidential succession, only behind the vice president.</p> <p>With Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s <a href="https://exame.com/brasil/exame-ideia-aprovacao-de-bolsonaro-despenca-de-37-para-26/">approval ratings declining</a> and talk of impeachment gaining steam in Brasília corridors, the outcome of February 1&#8217;s leadership election could decide the fate of the sitting government.

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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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