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.

By , Guest blogger

Brazilians have a saying that every corruption scandal “ends in pizza.” The malfeasor and the enforcer settle things by sharing a meal and leaving behind what brought them together in the first place. Unlike other Latin American elites, the Brazilian elite peculiarly tend towards consensus as opposed to hot-headed conflict. Rather than incriminate each other, they let each other off. Rather than fight, they separate.

There is no place that reflects this behavior more powerfully than the Brazilian National Legislature. No one has ever been legally sanctioned for an ethics violation in the Brazilian Congress, despite legislators’ infamous shenanigans. Call this facet of political inaction “impunity through consensus.”

The cost of making laws in Brazil provides yet another example. More than 85 percent of all legislation passed by Congress originates in the Executive Branch, but legislators think themselves important enough that they raised their salaries a hefty 62 percent on one of the last days of the 2010 legislature. That means that legislators in Latin America’s most expensive parliament (on a per capita basis) and in its most unequal country, now bring home approximately 170,000 US dollars a year (26,700 reais/month), when a person earning the minimum wage earns less than 3,500 US dollars (545 reais/month) during the same period.

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When there are 23 parties to point the finger at, it’s kind of difficult to assign blame. What’s more, nine out of ten parties don’t have a chance of winning a presidential election, so they’re willing to take a hit to their reputations once in a while. Hence Brazil’s Congress understandably gets away with things that simply would not fly in other democracies.

Yesterday the government’s majority coalition in the Chamber of Deputies blackmailed the president it nominally supports. Legislators threatened to bring Congress to a standstill if the president does not disburse the remainder of the 2009 budget, what they refer to here as “the rest to pay” (“restos a pagar”). Because of the slow pace of contracting, previous years’ budgets leave residuals. This year it’s almost 3 billion US dollars (4.6 billion reais). These funds are typically used to buy political support through pork-barrel spending, but President Dilma Rousseff declared she would end the disbursement of contracts on June 30. Party leaders, however, warn that this course of action will be met by a general strike: the president’s urgent legislation will simply not be voted on. This legislation includes the infamous decree, 527/11, which aims to expedite building and infrastructure contracts for the 2012 World Cup and 2016 Olympics (at the cost of transparency).

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.

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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