San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Can New Assembly Stay the Course?

The honeymoon isn t yet over at the Legislative Assembly, lawmakers and analysts say, but the real test for new legislators who are confronting what is arguably the most controversial and ambitious legislative agenda in years using congressional regulations one analyst calls a disaster still lies ahead.

The eight faction heads of the highly fragmented assembly, which turned six months old Wednesday, speak about their first semester in office with cautious satisfaction.

Increased cooperation among parties and strong communication among the four women who head the leading parties has increased legislative efficiency, a point of pride after the 2002-2006 assembly s notorious failure to approve high-priority bills.

And while President Oscar Arias continues to call the assembly inefficient, his party s assembly leader, Mayi Antillón of National Liberation (PLN), says that description is becoming a thing of the past.

However, work on the most controversial legislation is still in the early stages. This includes the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which divides not only the country but also the assembly s two largest parties, Liberation and Citizen Action (PAC); the pact s massive and controversial accompanying legislation; and tax reform the previous assembly s Achilles heel.

What s more, the leading parties have discarded, for now, proposals to reform legislative regulations, despite the fact that several legislators and observers consulted by The Tico Times agree the cumbersome rules are severely handicapping lawmakers ability to get their work done. In an institution where, according to regulations, it can take almost 60 hours to reach a vote on a routine ship-docking permit, or where last term s legislators discussed tax reforms for almost four years with no result, it s unclear how long it will take to deal with the hefty agenda on the horizon.

All things considered, legislators have some stormy months ahead, according to political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís. He said the relatively warm relations between parties these first six months will likely cool as the truly controversial issues reach the table and Arias steps up pressure on Liberation.

It s going to be coordinated and it s going to be tough, he told The Tico Times this week. The pressure on the faction by the Executive Branch will be brutal.

A New Ball Game

The country s 57 legislators took office May 1 with an unpromising forecast. Foremost among their list of challenges: Costa Rica s Congress, in a span of less than a decade, had gone from a place where two clear leading parties ran the show, to a place where multiple parties must battle it out.

In the 2002-2006 assembly, President Abel Pacheco s Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) had the most legislators, but not a majority, and Pacheco found little support for his proposals. In that assembly s third year in office, for example, lawmakers passed only four laws approved by the Executive Branch, and only 24 other laws, few of national significance.

In 2004, corruption scandals weakened Unity still further, and in this February s elections even more parties gained strength in the assembly. Liberation has 25 legislators, two short of a majority; the anti-CAFTA PAC has 17; the pro-CAFTA, anti-tax Libertarian Movement (ML) has six; Unity dropped from 19 to only five; and four oneman parties took the stage (National Restoration, Access for All, the Broad Front and National Union).

Broad Front legislator José Merino, who also served as legislator in 1998-2002, when President Miguel Angel Rodríguez of Unity had 29 legislators and Liberation 22, said assembly members must now play a totally different ball game than during his first term.

Agreements among parties and coordination with the Executive Branch are much more complicated though it s not all bad.

I think the crisis of bipartisanism has been very good for the country, said the leftist legislator Monday, taking a break from the legislative session going on nearby.

(When an afternoon session of the whole assembly, or plenario, is convened, lawmakers move in and out of the room, giving interviews, networking, talking on their cell phones, reading the paper or even working out a Sudoku puzzle.) The legislature is still adjusting to the new power structure, causing some growing pains, he said, but these are positive problems that will reduce the corruption of the bipartisan era.

According to women who lead the larger parties, this assembly is making headway toward that adjustment. Evita Arguedas (ML), Elizabeth Fonseca (PAC), Lorena Vásquez (PUSC) and Antillón said their distinct approach to leadership has helped move the assembly forward.

Men are more territorial instead of looking for agreement, they mark the field, Fonseca told The Tico Times, adding that the four women often confer on the assembly floor or meet for coffee to plan the legislative agenda.

According to Antillón, the new assembly makeup has resulted in a variety of alliances.

Her legislators might cooperate with Citizen Action on one bill, then with the Libertarians on another, she said. Among the achievements she, and other assembly leaders, mentioned were the approvals of loans, such $127 million from the Japanese International Cooperation Bank to improve San José s sewer system, and $30 million from the World Bank to improve schools in rural regions.

Analyst Solís said the four lone legislators Merino, José Manuel Echandi of National Union (National Union), Oscar López (Access for All) and Guyón Massey (National Restoration) are having a significant impact on the assembly.

The one-man parties are playing very ably within this context, he said. Merino and López have gained respect among social movements for their tough line against CAFTA; Massey got himself elected as second secretary of the legislative directorate, where he can wield more influence; and Echandi is garnering support for his social legislation by making it a prerequisite for a yes vote on CAFTA, which Liberation could well need, Solís said. (A recent poll of 54 legislators by the daily Al Día three were unavailable for comment showed 25 legislators firmly in favor of the pact, 18 firmly against and 11 conditioning their support on other legislation.)

To win approval for the agreement, as well as complex tax hikes and reforms, the Arias administration will have to negotiate with opposition parties. Some legislators, such as Arguedas, said this isn t happening satisfactorily, but others, such as Vásquez, praise Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, the President s brother and assembly liaison, for communicating well with legislators.

Analysts Alexander Miranda, president of the College of Political Science and Public Relations Professionals, and Constantino Urcuyo, a former Unity legislator (1994-1998), told The Tico Times strong leadership from Casa Presidencial has played a crucial role in the operation of the assembly.

The assembly works better (than in previous administrations) for one reason, and that reason is: this government doesn t run away from political action, Urcuyo said, citing as an example Tuesday s vote of support from 38 legislators from a variety of parties for Liberation s proposal to set a deadline for the commission discussing CAFTA (see separate story). Even though it doesn t have a majority, it tries to form majorities.

Time for Reform?

Leading up to February s elections, Urcuyo and other analysts told The Tico Times that if the assembly didn t make drastic changes to its organization and rules, it could face collapse. The assembly s structure is based on strong two-party loyalty that existed after the 1948 civil war, but 60 years of peace have resulted in decreased loyalties and smaller, single-issue parties, making a changes necessary (TT, Jan. 27).

This week, however, Urcuyo and Miranda said that although reforms are still important, now may not be the best time to undertake them, given the loaded legislative agenda. Arguedas, Antillón and Fonseca made the same argument, with Fonseca saying the key to legislative progress isn t new regulations, but political will to cooperate. López disagrees.

This is the time, he said. It s urgent For me, the most important thing as a legislator is to have regulations that allow the assembly to become a dynamic entity.

One example of institutionalized inefficiency, according to López, is the fact that when the assembly decides whether to grant permission for a U.S. Marine ship to dock in Costa Rica, a routine procedure, the regulations give legislators one hour apiece to express their views.Many legislators use that time, he said.

Another example: after any vote in first or second debate, all 57 legislators get five minutes apiece to talk about why they voted the way they did.

It d be easy to fix, but they re not interested, he said of other legislators.

Echandi also supports assembly reforms, from a limit on the amount of time each legislator can speak on a given issue to making better use of the assembly s three comisiones plenas. These are groups of 19 legislators each that meet each week and have the same powers to vote bills into law except those that require a two-thirds majority, or involve taxes or treaties as the whole assembly.

It hasn t seen a single project in six months, he said of the commission on which he serves, explaining that he hopes to have a bill to overhaul the country s antiquated press laws moved to the commission.

He s been trying to make this change for months, but with no result.

Analyst Solís advocates still more profound changes.

That reglamento s a disaster, and the consequences are awful, but there s no political will to change it, he said. It s never the right time to revise the regulations but everybody knows it ought to be done.

Why don t more legislators want to see such change?

The architecture of the reglamento was designed to allow the majority to hold virtual dictatorship on the legislative procedures, he said. I think (legislators would) like to see the periods of discussion shortened and all of that, but still, (their length) plays in favor of the majority.

Urcuyo, who suggested the elimination of the 38-legislator quorum for full assembly (plenario) sessions as another useful reform in the U.S. Congress, for example, legislators can use their time more effectively because their physical presence isn t required on the floor at all times, according to the analyst said it s important for legislators to take these changes one at a time.

A mistake that s been made historically is to reform the whole reglamento, rather than making strategic reforms, he said, adding that this took place during his term in the assembly. They need to identify five or six reforms and work on those.


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