Brazil's Congress Strengthens Role Legislators Challenge Executive Initiatives
Julia Michaels, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
TWO young lobbyists sit at the back of the empty committee room. Senate aides distribute loose-leaf books among 13 places along five rows of long tables.
The minutes tick by on a clock-calendar at the front of the room. It shows the correct time, 5 p.m., but the date is a month behind.
"Shall we call their offices?" one aide asks another.
He shakes his head no.
By 5:30, three senators have arrived. The Senate Economic Affairs Committee can function as long as 13 of its 25 members show up. Fifteen minutes later, a waiter enters with a tray of water glasses, and Sen. Severo Gones says, "Unfortunately, we have no quorum. We will advise you of the date and hour of a new attempt."
The lobbyists file out and the aides collect the loose-leafs.
A slow June afternoon like this sometimes makes it seem as though democracy will never fully live and breathe in Brazil, where representative government has long been no more than a rubber stamp for dictators. But a closer look shows that change is beginning to take place.
"There are more modern people in Congress," says Walder de Goes, a University of Brasilia political science professor. "A great number of qualified people are getting interested in going into government and have come to understand that the (Congress) is a route. We are beginning to see state financial secretaries getting elected to Congress."
Politics under the previous military regime, adds Professor de Goes, were either "dangerous or sterile," so most qualified Brazilians chose business, academia, or exile. And for the 21 years of military dictatorship that ended in 1985, Congress was on a short leash.
Earlier this month, Congress stood up for the first time to Brazil's new President Fernando Collor de Mello, who took office March 15. Mr. Collor is the country's first directly elected chief executive in 30 years.
Legislators rejected a presidential emergency measure prohibiting cost-of-living increases, a decision seen as a response to workers' fears about Collor's anti-inflation plan. Previously, Congress had tamely approved most of Collor's plan, even the most controversial parts.
As a result of the defeat, the Economy Ministry is working on a revised proposal for a bill to send to Congress that gives low-paid workers better protection against price rises.
Congressmen are beginning to see themselves differently. Under the generals, they merely helped local politicians and businesses to lobby the president and his ministers for jobs, funds, and contracts. Many of them weren't elected by direct vote. Now taxpayers increasingly hold them accountable, both for action and inaction.
So the chronic lack of quorums has become an issue, as many important questions get put off. …