San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Welcome to Land of the Laws

Many Costa Ricans believe that if you pass a law, everything will be made right.

If private development is blocking access to the beach: make a law to ensure public access. If there are too many poor people: approve a law to alleviate poverty. If a loud  bird is crowing outside your window: well, maybe a law could do something about that, too.

Such theoretical bills will wind up tacked to the end of a long agenda awaiting the National Assembly s 57 legislators each representing very different interests and only few of whom have political experience where they will wallow in debate with no firm deadlines for a vote.

We make laws and we don t enforce them, said political analyst Agustín Castro. But people measure the success of the government by how many laws are approved. This clogs the system, making it even slower.

That Costa Rica s legislative body is slow is no secret.

The World Economic Trade Forum ranked Costa Rica 113 out of 133 countries in the effectiveness of lawmaking bodies, according to a March report.

In August, President Oscar Arias called for constitutional reform, complaining of a bloated and restrictive government that spends too much time in discussion and prohibits progress.

And nowhere is the problem clearer than in the recent process of developing a new traffic law, a bill that took congress more to undergo intense debate even after taking effect.

For Castro, the greatest obstacle facing the Legislative Assembly is the lack of deadlines for approving legislation. It s like a soap opera, he said.

(Legislators) give themselves six months to reform a law; the six months go by and a law goes into effect with mistakes. That is not something you see in countries that want to be developed.

Much national attention is being paid to the potential of the new assembly as the membership prepares to turn over completely in early May and new lawmakers ready to move into their offices: Will opposition gridlock new legislation as it did under Oscar Arias? How can the new leaders ensure quality control? And what procedures need to be changed in order to make the upcoming Legislative Assembly more effective?

Current Assembly President Francisco Pacheco defended the work of his colleagues, saying, The Legislative Assembly is undoubtedly slow, but it works hard and long hours and we ve approved a considerable number of laws.

Pacheco said the assembly s high point of the last four years was the approval of the legislation needed to implement of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) through which they brought radical change by opening up monopolized insurance and telecommunications markets.

There is no doubt that this assembly will be remembered for the laws (relating to) the free-trade agreement, he said.

The greatest challenge? Increasing efficiency, according to Pacheco.

Both he and leader of the Accessibility without Exclusivity Party (PASE), which won three additional seats in the incoming congress, agreed with Castro about the need to establish voting deadlines.

We need to prevent what is taking place at this moment; that is, the never-ending debates, said Congressman Oscar López. There needs to be a reform in order to set a deadline for each vote.

At least two new legislative leaders, Guillermo Zuñiga, head of the Libertarian Movement and Gloria Bejarano, Unity Party legislator and wife of former President Rafael Angel Calderón, agree with such regulatory reform.

There are bills (in the assembly) that are eight or nine years old, said Zuñiga, former finance minister. We need to define a deadline for taking a vote. They might be approved or they might not, but we need to establish a time limit.

Besides operating without deadlines, congress is further slowed by the learning curve of each new politician during their first few years, said Castro. Unlike the United States and other nations with similar government structures, there are no career legislators in Costa Rica, who know all the levers and have a sense of the institutions because they ve served for decades.

Legislators in Costa Rica serve four years and cannot be reelected to a successive term. According to Castro, that means that legislators arrive green, need two years to learn the ropes, and by then they are lame ducks, waiting for the new crop to come in.

Each four years you have to start again, he said. This slows the process because they have to learn how to get things done. Yet, criticism of the Legislative Assembly goes beyond its torpor and its novice members.

The fact is, laws can be debated for months, but the final product is often scarred by mistakes or inconsistencies. For example, the traffic law that was approved in November of 2008 required drivers to carry first aid kits with certain medications. But the transportation ministry immediately questioned the provision because the required medications, when kept in a sun-scorched car for long periods of time, can go bad.

The new immigration law, which went into effect March 1, said all visitors could renew their visas by paying $100 instead of leaving the country. The law was meant improve procedures for people from countries who are traditionally given less than a 90-day visa. Meanwhile, the fine for staying one month without renewing is $100, thus raising the question: Who would bother to submit paperwork to immigration and spend $100, when they could risk a fine for the same amount for just doing nothing?

There has been a pinch of irresponsibility, Castro said. Some lawmakers know in advance that there are mistakes (in a bill), but approve laws anyway. They rushed to approve the traffic law and now we have a Frankenstein.

According to some, another blemish on the record of the current legislature is the obstructionism by parties that oppose legislation. A recent example is the Citizen Action Party, which didn t agree with the final piece of legislation needed to implement CAFTA and thus shipped the entire law off to the courts, where it is likely to linger until they are out of office, without any further deliberation.

At times, an obstructionist attitude exists, Bejarano agreed. Legislators will impede a law with all types of motions so that there is a delay in the vote.

She said the various parties in the new legislative assembly are doing the leg-work now to identify points of agreement so the same confrontational mentality doesn t inhibit their work.

The people (of Costa Rica) are disenchanted, she said. They want results.

At the same time though, Costa Ricans need to recognize that the assembly is not a cure-all for the nation s problems, said Carlos Sojo, a political analyst who formerly served as head of the Costa Rican office of the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO).

Debate, disagreement and long deliberation are healthy, he said. People can t expect that the assembly will rubberstamp all the projects that come through.

Costa Rica has more laws than we can comply with, and the tendency is to look for a law for every problem, he said. But it s not always about the quantity of laws. The expectation of the people puts the assembly in a very difficult position, he said. Costa Ricans have to realize that there is not sufficient capacity to meet that type of demand.




How Lawmakers are Elected



None of the legislative assembly s 57 lawmakers are elected directly by the people. In fact, voters don t even know exactly for whom they re voting when they make their decision on the ballot sheet.


Instead, legislators are elected as part of a slate put forth by the political parties, with the number of seats assigned to each party determined by the total number of votes the party receives in each province.


Though hailed as a way to reduce election corruption as it s more difficult for outside institutions to buy a politician some have been questioning whether there is a better way.


Because legislators aren t elected directly by the people, the relationship between citizen and representative is weakened, leaving many feeling like they have no representation in congress.


Furthermore, legislators are elected by province, but at the provincial level absolutely nothing happens, said political analyst Carlos Sojo. Provinces don t mean anything to the country in a development sense.


A possible solution, he said, was to elect legislators by municipality, thus making the assembly more relevant to people.


The benefit of the current structure, said Agustín Castro, an analyst who used to work in the assembly, is that people can t be bought.


It s no secret that a lot of corporations in the United States have lawmakers in their pockets, he said. I wouldn t say that it doesn t exist here. But legislators aren t owned here in the same way as in the United States.















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