La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Separation of powers

During many of my interviews with business, labor, and party leaders in Mexico last year, interviewees stressed the importance of Congress for policy-making. Several leaders stressed that policy is now made in the Congress, and that's why the composition of party lists and getting representation of their interests in Congress is becoming even more important.

The fragmentation of power in the legislature among the three main parties was also an important theme and explanation for why Fox has had difficulty with his reform agenda. With three parties, building a coalition in support of reform is more difficult, even with relatively strong party discipline. (Mexican parties control campaign funding and PR lists are closed.)

At the same time, the Congress in Mexico will continue to have a hard time demonstrating its independence from the Executive as long as the Congress lacks the resources and staff to research or develop policy positions. Most members of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate have small staffs, usually one receptionist and a personal secretary.

The Commissions (analogous to U.S. Committees) have more staff and support, but not necessarily all the resources to develop policy papers and information. There is a small research area analogous to the GAO, and it does contract some external, non-partisan studies of policy. But these resources are not enough for technically complicated or complex policies, like pension or energy sector reform.

In contrast, the Executive has entire ministries filled with specialists in various areas. When the Executive presents a reform proposal, the Executive ministry that elaborated the proposal often has a monopoly on the information necessary to evaluate the impacts of reform. This means that Congressional leaders are often unable to effectively evaluate a proposal because they have no independent or impartial sources of data and no staff with the skills to evaluate the Executive's position. The Congress cannot effectively "check" or "balance" the power of the Executive.

I have observed the effects of this asymmetrical information in the area of pension reform, but it was this article about petroleum revenue and reform that made me think about it again today. The Senate has asked the Treasury for the data and information about the methodology used to estimate petroleum revenue. According to one (PANista) Senator:
"Aunado a ello, el Ejecutivo federal argumentó que las observaciones realizadas obedecen en su totalidad a que los ingresos públicos federales se verán mermados, lo que va en detrimento de los recursos que pertenecen a los estados y municipios. Por ello, esta comisión considera necesario e impostergable contar con la información completa y detallada, a fin de valorarla, y, en su caso, realizar las adecuaciones a que haya lugar."

Democracy in Mexico has had a significant impact on Congress. It has become a more important player in decision-making due to divided government, and it has also become an important place of contestation among the main political parties. But, its ability to effectively check presidential power and increase its independence from the Executive in the future will require that it have the resources and access to information necessary to develop alternative reform proposals.

posted by Michelle @ 10:21 AM,


At 9/23/2005 9:49 PM, Anonymous Matthew Shugart said...

Neat post.

The issue is certainly not trouble for Congress in gaining independence from the executive branch of government. Its independence has been amply shown by its ability not only to veto Fox's bills, but also to initiate legislation. But, legislators have limited independence from their own PARTY executives (i.e. extra-congressional leadership). And, interestingly, it is not just the members elected off the closed party lists, but also the members elected in the single-seat districts. They demonstrate little of the individual behavior we would normally expect of such legislators in a presidential system.

Presumably this is because of the continuing absence of a reelection incentive and the centralization of campaign finance.

At 9/24/2005 9:44 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

I agree with some of your points, and institutions (like closed lists and no reelection) do shape incentives.

But my observation is that, in addition, the executive has a monopoly on certain information that makes real legislative independence difficult, especially in highly technical or complex areas. Yes, the Congress vetos legislation and formulates new initiatives, but often the vetos are justified on ideological rather than technical or policy grounds and new initiatives are often legally vague or problematic (like the social security reform) presumably because they don't have specialists who can advise on legislative design.

I don't have the data, but an interesting test would be to collect some measure of 'legislative independence' (initiatives, vetos, who-knows-what-else?) across several policy areas in one country to estimate the 'evenness' of legislative independence. For instance, yes, the legislature can effectively initiate or veto a voting reform like absentee voting, but can they effectively initiate or veto a bill about telecommunication regulation?

My sense (or hypothesis, if you prefer) is that in countries, like Mexico, where legislators do not have access to sufficient resources to develop or critique policy, legislative independence (of the branch, not individual legislators) is weaker in policy areas that require considerable technical expertise.

At 9/24/2005 9:54 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

Oh, and my observation is also partially informed by what elites have told me.

For instance, in 2001 when I asked a CTMista what changes democracy had made, he said the union had to be much better prepared to discuss issues.

And other unions seem to be learning, too. In the mid-90s when pension privatization was on the agenda, unions did not hire actuaries to do their own studies. They relied on revolutionary (in the Mexican revolution sense) rhetoric to oppose reform. They took a position of "no" but without an alternative proposal or studies to back their claims. Now, however, unions being targeted for pension privatization are hiring actuaries (even international teams of actuaries) to develop alternatives and to contest the claims made by the administration. This is a new strategy.

If the executive branch has a monopoloy on data and the expertise to analyze the data, then opposition parties will still have difficulties taking independent policy positions that are real challenges (rather than rhetorical stances) to executive positions.

At 9/24/2005 12:48 PM, Anonymous Matthew Shugart said...

This is an interesting thread. It's easier to respond at length at Fruits and Votes. I would send a trackback, but it does not look like there is a means to do that here.

My post on this topic is here.

(By the way, this word verification that is required for each comment is sometimes really hard for my old eyes to figure out!)

At 9/26/2005 12:03 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Sorry for the delay (am posting reply soon) and the word verification. Without it, comments get spammed within minutes.


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