President Woos Brazilian Congress

Collor's reforms hinge on cooperation with a Congress wary of ties to the struggling leader

A STAIRWELL echoes with the heavy breathing of federal deputies and their staffers, laboring back from the lunch break. Striking congressional workers have switched off the elevators in the Chamber of Deputies' building for an afternoon to protest their low pay.

The strike is just one of the many difficulties facing President Fernando Collor de Mello as he attempts to rid his government of corruption accusations, weave better relations with the National Congress, and pass a slew of economic reforms.

In the last two weeks, Mr. Collor accepted the resignations of two Cabinet members and brought in five new top-level officials.

He also tried, but failed, to persuade the highly influential center-left Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) to abandon its opposition stance and participate in the Cabinet.

The overall process set in motion, analysts say, will help Brazilians decide in a September 1993 plebiscite on whether their government should run on a parliamentary or a presidential system.

"The fact that the [PSDB] negotiations broke down shows how hard it is to form a coalition in a presidential system," says Alfred Stepan, a Columbia University political science professor who is writing a book comparing the two governing systems around the world. "In a parliamentary system, if there were no coalition, Collor would have fallen."

Two years into his term, Collor faces a largely hostile Congress, muddled by 18 political parties, caught up in old-fashioned practices, and preoccupied with the October municipal elections. Statistically, he does not have a congressional majority, although Brazilian politicians often deviate from party orientations.

Until now, political analysts say, Collor tried to arm-wrestle Congress into cooperating with him, unsuccessfully wielding his wide 1989 electoral margin.

"President Collor has shown a great lack of preparation in leading the country's political process," says Rita Camata, a deputy for the center-left Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB). "I am still not sure if he is really willing to change this relationship among the branches of government, or if it's just a marketing gambit."

Many in Congress fear any association with Collor could taint their own images. "The government won't have a majority and he will have to negotiate on a case by case basis with congressmen," says Walder de Goes, a University of Brasilia political science professor. "Realpolitik will continue, and this means the moral criticisms won't cease."

Collor demonstrated the importance he is now giving to Congress by naming Jorge Bornhausen to a new post created to improve relations.

Mr. Bornhausen, an experienced politician, says he will accept party recommendations of names for the second-tier posts left open by the ministerial shakeup, hoping for a significant return on this after the October elections. About 120 of the 584 members of Congress are running for municipal office.

"The government has important proposals that depend on legislative consideration, such as the constitutional revisions, the port system reform, the social security law, the trademark and patent law, the system of government, and the fiscal reform," Bornhausen wrote in response to questions from the Monitor. "With the support of the pro-government parties and by way of negotiations with the other parties, we will modernize our institutions and prepare our country to enter the new century, ranking among th e most modern nations."

Modernity has been slow to arrive in Congress itself. Representatives say that hometown politics tend to dominate their schedules. To show they work hard, some deputies stuff the bureaucracy with thousands of bills that get ample play in their local newspapers but never get passed.

Many deputies spend only three days a week in Brasilia and the rest of the time at home, thwarting committee quorums. Their constituents ask them for everything from houses, bricks, telephone lines, and bicycles to scholarships and roads.

"Every time I go [home] to Rio de Janeiro, four out of three people ask me for a favor," jokes Jair Bolsonaro, a deputy for the tiny Christian Democrat Party. "If you grant them, you don't have time to work, and you have to vote with Collor, you have to prostitute yourself."

In response to the problem, some congressional rules have been changed in the last year. Legislative bottenecks have been removed, and a new congressional schedule may allow week-long monthly visits home, with the other three weeks set aside for duties in Brasilia.

Collor has three years remaining in his term in which to build bridges with Congress. And at least some in Congress appear to see that cooperation may be in their own best interest.

"The parties don't have clear positions. The government has to negotiate with the opinion makers within the parties," says PMDB Deputy Nelson Jobim.

"This is because ... we are at the beginning of a new phase, the period of the democratic transition has passed. Now comes the problem of the consolidation of democracy," he says. "It's no use any more to think of democracy as speechmaking. Now it means results."

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