The Mexican Congress

by | Oct 24, 2001

Congress has become a principal player in Mexican politics. In 1997, for the first time in its modern history, Mexico experienced a divided government, in which the president’s party the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) did not enjoy an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies. That reality began to change the logic and nature of relations between the executive branch and the legislative branch and led to unprecedented forms of political bargaining and compromise. The July 2000 presidential election produced the second consecutive period during which the country experiences a divided government. However, this time there is a non-PRI president at the helm: Vicente Fox is the chief executive, but his party the National Action Party (PAN) lacks a plurality of seats in both houses of Congress. This situation is stimulating unimaginable dynamics in relations between branches of government. What has been the impact of this new plurality over executive-legislative relations? Will Congress become more productive to pass legislation? Will stalemate become the name of the game? Will the old player become a new power?


Plurality, Influence, and Productivity

The new Mexican Congress can be analyzed in terms of three variables: plurality, influence, and productivity. Plurality refers to the diversity of political groups and parties inside Congress how well it reflects the variety of today’s Mexico. Influence refers to the ability of members of Congress to influence the legislative process submitted bills, amendments, control, and oversight. Finally, productivity refers to the capacity of Congress to produce and pass bills.

With regards to plurality, the Mexican Congress is the most representative ever. In the lower house, eight parties are represented, none of them with a plurality of seats. As recently as the early 1990s the PRI held 65 % of the Chamber of Deputies seats; today, still the House’s largest party, it commands only 42% of the seats. The PAN jumped from 17% in 1991, to 41% today, while the PRD has not gone above 26%, its historic peak in 1997.

In the Senate, the arrival of plurality is more astonishing. The PAN had only 1.5% of that Chamber’s seats in 1994; today it controls almost 36%. The PRD jumped from 3.1% in 1991 to 12.5% in 2000. That evolution results from greater competitiveness among political parties, and the introduction of electoral reforms. These reforms allow for proportional representation in the upper house, as well as the first minority principle by which 25% of the Senate is elected among those candidates who come second in every state race.

Greater plurality has had a direct and immediate impact on Congress  influence over policy making and control of the executive branch. For decades, the main obstacle for legislative oversight was the unified control held by the PRI over the presidency and Congress. This allowed the chief executive to command discipline and control over legislators, most of whom were members of the PRI. Since 1997, as plurality emerged to the point of inaugurating a divided government experience, legislative influence and control over the administration increased accordingly. Budget bills have been amended’something unthinkable only years before. In 1999 the bill was approved just minutes before the end of the fiscal year (there was even fear at the time that government could be shut down as no legal disposition existed for budget bills not approved before the beginning of the new fiscal year).

This legislature (2000-2003) has shown its power in getting its own bills passed, and in blocking those of the executive. The fiscal reform package submitted by Vicente Fox early this year, which includes as its centerpiece an increase to the value added tax (IVA), has been blocked by Congress (as of August 2001). Despite administrative claims that the bill must be approvedin its own terms alleging lack of funds for social programs, the approved bill will be substantially different from that submitted by the chief executive. The same can be said of the electricity bill, which attempts to open power production to private investment. This bill has been pending since its original submission by the Zedillo administration in 1999. The new administration has signaled its intention to resubmit it but Congress has manifested its opposition to its general guidelines.

Another clear example of the new power exerted by Congress refers to the indigenous rights bill submitted by president Fox early this year. The chief executive spent weeks lobbying for its passage without amendments, but the bill was amended even with the support of the president’s party, PAN. Changes made by Congress to that bill caused confrontation between the president and his party but did not preclude Congress from exerting its influence. Amendments to executive bills and disagreements over policy making, which are normal in other presidential systems, are nonetheless a new modus operandi in Mexican politics and reflect vividly the new activism and power of the Mexican Congress.

Finally, the new Mexican Congress can be assessed with regards to its productivity. Over the last few years, the legislative branch has been more active in submitting its own bills, though they are not always drafted with the needed expertise. During the legislature 1991-94, the Chamber of Deputies submitted only 48% of the bills. From September 2000 to April 2001, 74% percent were written and submitted by deputies. However, simultaneously the rate of passage has declined. In 1991-94, 61% of bills submitted were approved, whereas during this legislature only 30% have been passed. This reflects that congressional activism does not always translate into more legislative production. Such decline is due in part to the greater autonomy of Congress and the corresponding decrease of presidential control over the legislative agenda. Another reason is the disagreement over policy issues as a result of greater plurality in Congress.


Challenges Ahead

The consolidation of Mexican democracy must pass through a second round of political reforms. The first, already completed, refers to electoral reforms that allow citizens preferences to be translated into votes and elected officials (the input side of democracy). The second round of political reforms must seek to promote effective government once democracy and plurality have been attained (the output side of democracy). Greater plurality and more congressional influence over decision making does not necessarily translate into effective government. Congress has gained a stronger voice, but it still lacks an adequate institutional framework to translate this impetus into actual and effective legislative performance. As pluralism becomes the rule rather than the exception, a new set of standards will be needed to enable Congress to be a professional and effective participant in national politics. In the realm of formal institutions, the following steps need to be taken:

1. Article 59 of the Constitution must be reformed to provide immediate reelection of deputies and senators, but with established term limits. Since 1933, Mexican legislators cannot run for immediate reelection, and that rule has limited experience and professionalism within Congress.

2. Rules governing executive-legislative relations must be reviewed to incentive cooperation rather than confrontation. The set of rules governing Congress were designed many decades ago when the executive branch had unlimited control over political affairs and therefore that institutional framework does not fit to the new plurality in Congress.

3. Deputies must be allocated additional financial resources and staff. The average staff size of a Mexican legislator is 3 or 4 people, and that is insufficient for their responsibilities and duties. The Chamber at large requires better access to information and technological resources, and the new oversight body, Auditorí­a Superior de la Federación needs more human resources as well as technological ones.

The PRI was accused of having distorted congressional oversight efforts during the decades in which it held ample majorities in Congress. This criticism would have probably been raised against any party that maintained unified control of the presidency and Congress for such an extensive period. Therefore, future political reforms in Mexico should be passed under a veil of ignorance in order to formalize a system of checks and balances, regardless of which party controls the presidency or Congress, or both. As soon as electoral reforms have had an impact on the democratization of Mexico, it will be up to the Mexican Congress to exercise its role in consolidating the country’s democracy.

Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1

Luis Carlos Ugalde is a professor of political science at CIDE (Center for Economic Research and Teaching) in Mexico City. He was a visiting scholar at the David Rockefeller Center during the spring of 2001.

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