Brazil’s House opens up committees to interest groups. What does it mean?

. Feb 22, 2021
congress committees democracy People wait for lawmakers to leave a committee meeting in Congress. Photo: Edilson Rodrigues/AS/CN/CC-BY

The so-called “permanent committees” in Brazil’s Congress are crucial to the country’s legislative process. Whenever a new bill is submitted to the House or Senate, the first course of action is its assignment to up to three congressional committees for analysis. Both chambers have dozens of these boards, comprising members of parliament, each focusing on specific issues. After the committee debates a given bill, an appointed rapporteur produces a review — which may include changes to the proposal — that is then voted on by the full board.

Only after a bill is approved by all relevant committees may it go to a final floor vote in the House or Senate. Indeed, some proposals may be enacted into law solely with committees’ approval.

</p> <p>Thus, control of a permanent committee imparts a great deal of legislative influence to the party or politicians in question. The prime example of this is the Constitution and Justice Committee (CCJ), through which all bills must pass. Traditionally, the presidency of the CCJ is awarded to the party with the largest bench in the House or Senate.</p> <p>This week, with the conclusion of <a href="">congressional leadership elections</a>, the permanent committees in the House and Senate will hold their first — albeit remote — sittings of 2021, meaning that the year&#8217;s legislative works can properly get underway.</p> <h2>Enter the interest groups</h2> <p>But there will be important changes to the operation of permanent committees in the House, thanks to a new rule enacted in mid-February allowing <a href="">interest groups to formally participate</a> in committee meetings. While these organizations have never been strictly banned from debates, they have never been officially invited to take part in committee activities. </p> <p>Brazilian scholars and journalists reacted poorly to the change, arguing that it may skew decision-making processes in favor of well-financed and organized groups. But this new rule could in fact create an unprecedented opportunity for transparency and social accountability.</p> <p>Instituted as part of <a href=";filename=SSP+1+%3D%3E+PRC+6/2021">Resolution Bill 6</a>, the rule states that representatives of organizations and entities relevant to the topic under discussion are allowed to take part in committee meetings. The bill specifies that their involvement is permitted providing that the presence of outside representatives does not overcrowd the committee and breach Covid-19 rules.&nbsp;</p> <p>The bill’s rapporteur, Congressman Marcelo Ramos, said that both the <a href="">Brazilian Association of Governmental and Institutional Relations (ABRIG) and the center-left Workers&#8217; Party (PT) requested the change</a>. “I have made a personal gesture to ABRIG and the PT. It was initially an ABRIG request. When the PT asked to include these organizations, I decided to create this possibility,” he said. Mr. Ramos is an ally of newly elected House Speaker Arthur Lira.&nbsp;</p> <p>In practice, the bill makes the participation of these organizations official. However, their representatives have already been taking part in committee meetings in an informal capacity. In the roughly six months I spent in the House of Representatives between 2018 and 2019, I attended many committee meetings across all policy areas. Representatives of <a href="">interest groups</a> were always present in these meetings. </p> <p>During these meetings, interest groups typically provide lawmakers with information about the policy issue at hand. With Brazil&#8217;s low level of legislative professionalization, such information is a scarce commodity. However, as these reports and dossiers are largely skewed in favor of the group&#8217;s interest, academics see the change introduced by Resolution Bill 6 as a negative development in Brazilian legislative politics.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Not as bad as it sounds</h2> <p>Political scientist Graziella Testa argues that the new rule will <a href="">prioritize more organized and well-financed groups at the expense of civil society</a> in the House. But this argument is problematic for two reasons. First, the distinction between civil society and organized, well-financed groups is unclear. All groups that are a part of civil society are organized and, to a certain extent, financed. The distinction should really be between the amount of resources interest groups have and whether this affects their influence in decision-making.&nbsp;</p> <p>Second, and most importantly, this argument ignores the potential for transparency introduced by the new rule. As formal participants, representatives of interest groups will likely be included in the minutes of committee meetings. This allows academics and journalists to keep track of precisely who participated in meetings and assess the effect of their participation on legislative outcomes.</p> <p>Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, but the opportunity for transparency has been set by legislators. With formal participation, interest groups will no longer be acting in the shadows and can become an official part of the decision-making process, meaning their involvement is visible to citizens.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the criticism, this should be seen as a win — not a loss — for Brazilian democracy.

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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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