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Congress gets stronger as the Executive gets angrier

. Feb 27, 2020
impeachment bolsonaro congress Jair Bolsonaro at the lower house. Photo: Marcelo Camargo/ABr

Earlier this month, retired Army General Augusto Heleno accused Congress of trying to hold the federal government to ransom. Caught on tape during an online broadcast, the head of the administration’s Institutional Security—and close advisor to President Jair Bolsonaro—said they “cannot accept these guys blackmailing us, fuck it!”

One week later, President Bolsonaro was caught sharing videos among his friends promoting demonstrations against Congress, which called on the people to defend the president and “take back their country.” Clearly, the relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches of Brazilian politics is poisonous—and this collision has been a long time coming.

</p> <h2><strong>Not just rubber-stamping</strong></h2> <p>In recent years, the Legislative branch has increasingly been seen as responsible for conducting the political landscape in Brazil, managing to oust two presidents that displeased them, and pushing through reforms to overhaul the country&#8217;s labor and pensions systems. Now, the position of House Speaker is seen as one of the most powerful seats in Brazil, and it&#8217;s incumbent, Rodrigo Maia, wields a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/07/11/pension-reform-rodrigo-maia-power-brokers/">great deal of influence</a> in the capital due to his ability to form majorities regardless of ideology.</p> <p>But this <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/01/06/brazilian-congress-2020-main-votes/">scenario</a> is hardly a recent development. The protagonism of Congress has been strengthening gradually over the last 20 years. During the governments of ex-presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002) and Lula (2003–2009), parliamentarians were kept somewhat more in check, with the real change in the power balance occurring with the presidency of Dilma Rousseff.</p> <p>Between 1995 and 2010, the <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/02/12/bolsonaro-budget-change-congress-amazon-council-argentina-diplomacy/">Executive branch would pay out parliamentary grants</a> as the traditional currency of Brazilian politics. In exchange for support in key votes, administrations would set aside funds in the federal budget for individual members of parliament to pursue projects in their constituency. In 1997, then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso cleared some BRL 150 million in grants to ensure backing for his administrative and pension reforms. During Lula&#8217;s administration, <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2019/07/13/budget-legislation-passed-brazil-congress/">budgetary grants increased 550 percent</a>.</p> <p><strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has already <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/02/03/bolsonaro-buying-support-congress/">shown</a> that this model in which the Executive &#8220;buys&#8221; parliamentary support from the Legislative is entirely legal. &#8220;There is a price that the Executive must pay in order to perform well in Congress. This &#8216;payment&#8217; is made to representatives and senators and may involve political and/or financial concessions,&#8221; explained political analyst Felipe Berenguer.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/479509"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>This dynamic ensured the Congress–Executive relationship flowed relatively smoothly, but some institutional ruptures have appeared since 2010. As pressure built on former President Dilma Rousseff in the mid-2010s, then-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha—now serving a 15-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering—publicly declared he had cut ties with the president and eventually spearheaded the move toward her impeachment.</p> <p>The seas became calmer after Congress had ousted Ms. Rousseff, and President Michel Temer propelled Rodrigo Maia into the House Speaker seat. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro on an anti-politics ticket in 2018, <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/07/03/bolsonaro-congress-relationship/">tensions flared once again</a>. Mr. Bolsonaro set out his stall to break with the old give-and-take models of governance in Brazil, <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/02/03/coalition-presidentialism-bolsonaro-government/">refusing to form coalitions or make political appointments</a>, enraging lawmakers. The government also began blaming the Legislature for the slowness of the congressional agenda and many other problems in the country.</p> <p>One of the by-products of this tussle was the approval of the so-called &#8220;<a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/02/12/bolsonaro-budget-change-congress-amazon-council-argentina-diplomacy/">mandatory budget</a>,&#8221; by which the federal government is forced to pay all parliamentary grants promised in the annual budget, giving Congress a huge amount of control over administration spending. Before, the Executive could promise to make these payments but was free to delay them or simply not to comply at all.&nbsp;</p> <p>Jair Bolsonaro vetoed this change, but Congress will overturn his decision. This was the &#8220;<a href="https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2020-02-19/general-heleno-diz-que-parlamentares-chantageiam-governo-e-abre-novo-embate-com-o-congresso.html">blackmailing</a>&#8221; that General Heleno referred to in his complaints.</p> <h2>Congress taking back power</h2> <p>Before this show of strength, two similar moments took place in the final years of the Cardoso and Lula administrations. During the 2000s, the Executive would use provisional decrees to dictate the legislative agenda. These proposals would come into law immediately and, unless Congress voted on them in 45 days, they would block the legislative agenda, meaning that no other bills could be approved</p> <p>This changed with an amendment to the constitution limiting the reach of provisional decrees. While before governments could issue these proposals about nearly any subject, now they must relate to matters under the strict jurisdiction of the Executive, reducing the administration&#8217;s power over the legislative agenda.</p> <p>Another change that strengthened Congress was the establishment of joint committees to analyze popular and important bills. Before the proposals begin processing under normal circumstances, a panel of representatives and senators is elected to debate the proposal and create a preliminary consensus. Party leaders see their positions strengthened, and the Executive loses its influence over parliamentarians.&nbsp;</p> <p>General Heleno was careless to say that Congress is attempting to blackmail the Executive, but there is no doubt that Brazil&#8217;s federal lawmakers are increasingly trying to wrestle more power to the House of Representatives and Senate, particularly during such a turbulent presidency as Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s.

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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