Over at La Profesora AbstraÃda, Michelle Dion and I have been having a discussion about the separation of powers in Mexico under President Fox.
As Michelle notes in her opening paragraph, leaders of business, labor, and the political parties whom she recently interviewed:
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. [my emphasis]
(Side note: President Fox’s party, the PAN, lacks a majority in either house, and the former hegemonic party, the PRI, is the largest party in each house. No party has a majority.)
Michelle further observes:
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.
This raises the question of what it means to speak of the legislative branch in a presidential system as “independent.” For many decades in Mexico, the congress was totally subordinate to the presidency through the hegemonic PRI. Therefore, congress was not at all independent, notwithstanding the formal separation of powers. (Mexico’s constitutional structure is as close to that of the USA of any country in the world.)
Now, with no majority for the president’s party (or any other), the congress is unmistakably independent in the sense that it debates (substantively, not merely pro forma), demands concessions, puts on amendments, and sometimes rejects outright bills presented by the executive. It also initiates bills not favored by the executive, which the president may sign into law or veto. Data collected by several of the presenters at a conference on the evolution of presidentialism and federalism in Mexico last March (co-organized by Jeff Weldon and me) demonstrate that congress, rather than the executive, is now the source of most major legislation. If that is not independence, then I do not know what that word means.
But Michelle seems to have another dimension of independence in mind, and it is an important one to consider when looking at policymaking, and not just lawmaking, in presidential democracies. If I understand her correctly, she is concerned with the ability of the congress to have independent sources of technical information and expertise about policy proposals. The second quote from her original post, above, refers to the relative lack of staffing for congress, and she subsequently adds:
Most members of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate have small staffs, usually one receptionist and a personal secretary.
This is absolutely true, but drawing from that fact the implication that congress is therefore not independent is to commit the following fallacy. It assumes that the standard for judging legislative independence must be resemblance to the way the US Congress is organized: large individual staffs and lots of technical policy expertise (mostly matched with constituency interests).
But why is the US Congress organized that way? Because individual members largely run their own independent electoral coalitions and have appropriated themselves staff to provide them with the independent information they need for that purpose.
Michelle goes on to note that there is staff for congressional committees in Mexico, a small research service for the congress as a whole, and independent external contracting. Thus while there is not anything like the staffing available to individual members, there are other sources of information independent of the executive branch.
Nonetheless, clearly Michelle is correct when she argues further that even these congress-wide sources of information are little match for the executive branch. Surely they still pale in comparison to the overall level of information resources available to congress as a whole in the USA.
So this leads to a very important question: What kind of information do legislators need? If they need information to conduct independent re-election campaigns, as in the US, they need independent and individual information, as well as large committee staff, and congress-wide resources that place their institution on par with the executive branch in terms of technical specialization.
But what do Mexican legislators need? They are ineligible for reelection. They thus have no need to develop independent re-election campaigns. We are only beginning to get a handle on what post-congressional careers will look like in the post-hegemonic era, but as long as the jobs most of them seek (whether other elective offices or appointive positions) continue to be controlled by party leaders (national or state), there is bound to be little incentive for these legislators to collect any information besides what is provided by those very same party leaders.
In other words, we would be looking in the wrong place if we were looking to see what technical policy information Mexican legislators collect. Of what value is technical information if they are not going to run for office based on their individual reputation for having participated in crafting and improving the technical quality of policy?
So, as Michelle notes in her comment to my comment:
…the Congress vetos legislation and formulates new initiatives, but often the vetos are justified on ideological rather than technical or policy grounds…
Exactly. Members of congress are following party cues, and if the party is positioning itself for the next election, then the only specialized information they need is whether this or that policy is consistent with the party’s positioning, not whether it is good techincal policy.
Information on the impact of a presidential initiative on the party’s positioning for the next election comes from the party, not from anyone hired by congress or its members. In Mexico, it is still the parties that hire the legislators, and that has profound implications for the type of information that legislators (or the legislative branch as an institution) needs and appropriates for itself.
So, is the Mexican congress independent of the executive? Sure. It is a forum for bargaining between very highly disciplined national parties, each of which has its distinct partisan political interests that it seeks to advance through the lawmaking process.