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Latin America Blog

How Brazil's Congress protects its pork

The Brazilian Congress, which yesterday threatened to stop work if the president doesn't dole out pork, acts with impunity thanks to a culture of consensus that lets malfeasors off the hook, writes guest blogger Greg Michener.

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Demanding pork in return for not stonewalling the president’s priorities pays homage to traditions of consensus-making: most every legislator in the governing coalition is holding strong to the threat of blackmail. At least they have not threatened to vote against the president’s priorities.

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The inertial pull toward consensus is so strong that instead of having parties rife with infighting, you have breakaways – new parties, which eventually cooperate with the parties they left, forming voting blocks. There are now 23 parties in the Chamber of Deputies and counting. The illustration presented (see original blog) includes a few salient voting blocks.

The newest breakaway party is the PDB, which split from the DEM following its involvement in a vote-buying racket in the Federal District. Now Marina Silva may start her own party, reports the Globo. Ms. Silva is the Green Party (PV) candidate who garnered more than 20 million votes in the 2010 presidential election, placing a solid third. The presidential candidate and her allies object to the way the party is run: the Greens’ 12-year president, José Luiz Penna, controls appointments and chooses candidates undemocratically, without primaries. Perhaps more importantly, Silva objects to the alliances the PV has been forced to make in order to exercise any political clout.

Unsavory alliances are the price to be paid for a party system that privileges consensus over other priorities, such as accountability and responsiveness. The largest party in the Chamber of Deputies has 17 percent of the vote (the PT), forcing the president’s party to make deals with multiple others. Loyalty tends to be skin-deep. Political scientists have blamed the pork-based consensus-building process of the Brazilian Congress for bloated budgets and slow policy-making. The perks of a system built on consensus may also explain why legislators have resisted accountability measures, such as a freedom of information law. Senators have preferred to cloak Brazil in secrecy than reveal past and present abuses. They defend the peace, the reigning consensus – but at a great, great cost.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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