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Bolsonaro’s legislative priorities for 2021 and why they will be ignored

. Feb 08, 2021
legislative agenda bolsonaro congress Bolsonaro delivers equipment to road marshals. Photo: Carolina Antunes/PR

In an attempt to coordinate the approval of key bills, President Jair Bolsonaro presented his policy agenda to the new heads of Congress last week. Of the list of 34 proposals, 11 relate to the priorities of the agribusiness, public security, and evangelical caucuses — three of the most influential groups in the Legislative branch and which helped propel him to the presidency in 2018. Despite Mr. Bolsonaro’s eagerness to please these caucuses, the likelihood of both houses taking these issues as priorities is low.

Instead, the 2021 congressional agenda is likely to be focused on approving this year’s budget — delayed in 2020 due to party squabbles — and making progress on reforms related to the pandemic and the economy.

Moreover, it is unclear whether Mr. Bolsonaro has a large enough congressional support base to approve any of his legislative priorities. </p> <p>The president&#8217;s wish list pays special attention to the agribusiness caucus. His priority proposals include bills to regulate <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=257161">environmental licensing</a>, <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2267073&amp;fichaAmigavel=nao">forestry concessions</a>, <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2252589">government lands</a>, and <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2236765">mining on indigenous territories</a>. The government also seeks to pass legislation creating an <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2265295">investment fund for the agribusiness sector</a> that would increase mechanisms for private funding — the proposal is awaiting debates in the Senate.&nbsp;</p> <p>Along with agribusiness, the evangelical caucus received plenty of interest in Bolsonaro’s agenda. One priority proposal would revise the <a href="http://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_Ato2004-2006/2006/Lei/L11343.htm">National Public Policy System on Drugs</a> to <a href="https://www25.senado.leg.br/web/atividade/materias/-/materia/129926">criminalize the behavior of those who lead minors to engage in drug trafficking</a>. There is also a bill <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2257562">increasing penalties for the sexual abuse of minors</a> — which would also affect religious leaders who commit this crime — and another to <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=1301482">include all crimes of pedophilia</a> in the <a href="https://www2.camara.leg.br/legin/fed/lei/1990/lei-8072-25-julho-1990-372192-norma-pl.html">Heinous Crimes Law</a> of 1990.</p> <p>Finally, a proposal that <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2198615">regulates homeschooling in the country</a> has also been associated with the evangelical caucus.</p> <p>From a public security point of view, the president has listed two bills related to the possession and use of firearms. The first regulates <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2233986">the registration, possession, and sale of guns and ammunition</a>, allowing public officials the right to carry firearms. The president&#8217;s son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, was among the bill’s rapporteurs in the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee. The second proposal <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=2230394">changes the definition of defense of lawfulness</a> in public security, expanding the number of situations in which members of law enforcement can claim affirmative defense in gun-related abuses.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro set to leave empty handed</h2> <p>While the president&#8217;s exhaustive list of priorities has drawn criticism from a number of sectors — such as environmental and human rights activists — Congress is unlikely to pass these bills in 2021, for three main reasons.</p> <p>First and foremost, lawmakers will be completely focused on approving this year&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/10/30/squabbles-over-2021-budget-could-throw-brazil-into-shutdown/">federal budget</a>. Negotiations over government spending for 2021 stalled last year, and the administration is now only able to spend one-twelfth of the 2020 budget each month until a new financial plan is ratified. This will be the absolute priority in Congress, before any other substantial proposals are even considered.</p> <p>Second, the Legislative branch has made it clear it will focus efforts on more urgent issues, such as addressing the coronavirus pandemic and spurring economic recovery. Last week, the newly elected heads of the House and Senate announced their intention to <a href="https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/tales-faria/2021/02/03/os-chefes-do-congresso-anunciaram-que-comandarao-a-politica-do-pais.htm?utm_source=meio&amp;utm_medium=email">prioritize the pandemic</a>. Party whips in the lower house also stated that <a href="https://www.camara.leg.br/noticias/725272-lideres-apostam-em-reformas-e-no-enfrentamento-da-pandemia-do-coronavirus/">Covid-19 and economic reforms should be the priorities for 2021</a>.</p> <p>The final reason is that the size (and loyalty) of Jair Bolsonaro’s support base in Congress remains unknown — even to the government itself. The government is aware that <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2021/02/bolsonaro-planeja-reforma-ministerial-a-conta-gotas-para-testar-fidelidade-de-centrao.shtml">many of the votes that elected Arthur Lira as House Speaker were not pro-Bolsonaro votes</a>. Mr. Lira is an important legislator in the House and holds his own level of influence among his peers.</p> <p>While President Bolsonaro will rightly be pleased to have an ally in charge of Brazil&#8217;s lower house, he must also be aware that Arthur Lira holds the cards in their relationship — at least when it comes to the legislative agenda.

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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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