Kicks Off Project on Legislative Transparency

22 March 2006

By Maria Baron, Argentina

Introduction | Methodology | Glossary

Legislatures are an essential pillar in a country’s struggle to promote transparency and good governance and to combat corruption: they are the only institution that represents the entire citizenry, have the ability to control other state agencies, and create norms and initiatives that prevent unethical practices.

But the success of any legislature is determined by a variety of factors. The constitutional structure determines a legislature’s strength, it affects relationships with the executive and the public, and creates different patterns of cooperation and competition between representatives. The electoral system also affects the representation of the members and often their caliber and objectives. In fact, in a democracy there is a close correlation between the effectiveness of the legislature and that of the party system, and strengthening the capacity of political parties may be a prerequisite for an effective parliament.

The purpose of this study is to examine parliamentary transparency in 20 countries of the world, in order to determine its essential elements as well as to document the diverse approaches to transparency in the countries studied.


The study is divided into 11 sections. Each country report begins with a brief country profile, where the major political events of the last decades are narrated in order to situate the reader in the political context of the country.

This introduction is followed by a general overview of the country’s institutional environment. Parliaments do not exist in isolation: like any other organization they live in a wider institutional framework, which is where many of their more fundamental problems may originate. To focus narrowly on the internal workings of a parliament while ignoring the wider picture can be counterproductive. So, the form of government and parliament´s role therein, the general characteristics of the legislature, the electoral system and party system, which affects the way the electoral system works, are all aspects to take into consideration when analyzing how Congress works. Different systems produce different sorts of parliaments. But similar systems may also do so, because of differences in culture and history, or because the constitution and/or the electoral laws are interpreted differently, or are not respected.

The next section looks more closely at how parliaments work, examining their internal structures and prerogatives. Internal rules and constitutional prerogatives dictate what role the legislature is going to play within the country’s institutional framework, how it is going to manage itself, and how fair and democratic the decision making process will be. All this is a consequence of how effective members want it to be. A number of parliaments have changed markedly because members have chosen to exercise their powers more aggressively. Political will may be lacking if parliament is seen by ambitious politicians as a dead end. For example, rules of procedure or “Standing Orders” govern all aspects of parliamentary management. They should help, rather than hinder, the conduct of business. Also, resources need to be carefully managed not only to ensure they are used to best effect, but also because badly managed or ill-judged expenditure will damage parliament’s reputation.

The following section addresses the openness of floor sessions, examining how rules of procedure regulate transparency in each congress as well as its constitutional and informal practices. Parliaments make laws and take other important decisions about government policy and public finances. It is important that rules of procedure do not favor any group in debate, agenda setting, floor speeches, voting system, or quorum. The legislative process also has to have clear and accountable records, and all assistance programs should take account of record-keeping needs. Verbatim records of plenary sessions provide a practical solution to the impossibility of physically attending plenary sessions – or even watching them on television. In order to do that, legislators need to be able to obtain information and advice. The agenda setting, for example, is a key issue in every parliament because it establishes its openness to admit the setting of the calendar by groups other than the majority party. Recorded voting (as opposed to unrecorded, by show of hands, for instance) is also the most transparent alternative because it provides essential information about how members are representing their constituents.

The next section examines how committees work. It is very important to understand how members are appointed and how their authorities are designated. This process can undermine successful public policy because it can prevent bills from being originated to defend the public interest.

Committees have two main functions: detailed scrutiny of legislation, and detailed examination of particular policies and activities. A committee may perform both functions, or only one or the other. The role of committees is crucial. Committees may excite hostility at the outset from governments, who may see subject committees as competing centers of power and legislative committees as an impediment to passing legislation in some cases. But an effective Public Accounts Committee, supported by an effective public audit, is parliament’s strongest anti-corruption weapon.

Also, professional legal draftsmen should help legislators put their preferences into proper legal language, and to accurately amend draft legislation they receive from the executive. Imprecise language muddies legislative intent, and allows ministries or the courts undue latitude in interpretation. There are a variety of institutional arrangements for bill drafting systems, ranging from ad hoc systems, where legislators might ask friends and associates to draft, to centralized systems servicing all needs – government and private members alike. Bill drafting reform efforts have generally moved toward institutionalizing the process and establishing centralized professional, non-partisan systems. This also helps to make the best use of what is a very scarce skill.

A study of parliamentary groups is also important when one examines how a legislature works. They can work as a narrowly disciplined block or they can respond more broadly to their constituents’ needs. They can negotiate with other members or they can legislate on their own without permitting debate. Some parliaments are highly polarized, with little contact between members of different parties. This is bad for democracy, and can make it difficult for committees to work effectively.

In a democracy, an effective legislature relies not only on those in power, but also, almost as much, on those who sit in parliament but not as members of the opposition. In any legislatures it is the ordinary members of all parties – the “backbenchers” who are not ministers or party leaders – who have the main role in providing the bridge between leaders and public.

The opposition’s role is to advocate an alternative set of priorities, or alternative ways of addressing issues, as well as to scrutinize the activities of government. Oppositions can introduce amendments to legislation, mobilize public support for their policies, and try to defeat or stall legislation (but to be effective they must be constructive: obstructionist opposition for the sake of it is unlikely to win much public support). The most successful oppositions are those that can demonstrate a capacity to govern, for example by having an effective shadow cabinet or set of alternative policies.

It is important that all this is undertaken in a transparent atmosphere. Funds for parliamentary groups should be made public as well as how their leaders are appointed and details about human resources.

Control mechanisms delegated to each legislature by law or the constitution are also very important to the country’s institutional framework. Oversight of government is one of parliament’s most important functions. It feeds into the other two main roles of legislatures – representation and law-making – by enabling lawmakers to monitor the impact and effectiveness of previous legislation.

Oversight entails monitoring and reviewing the actions of the executive organs of government. It includes holding the executive accountable but goes wider, for example to assessing whether actions are legal, whether they conform with government policy, and whether they benefit the intended sections of the population. Accountability means requiring the executive or another organ of state to explain and justify, according to criteria of some kind, their decisions or actions. It also requires them to make amends for any fault or error and to take steps to prevent a recurrence.

Parliament must have (1) the power to demand information and compel testimony, and (2) MPs with the capacity to understand and interpret information and evidence. MPs may benefit from training programs in oversight techniques – using question periods more effectively, better utilizing the public accounts committee, learning to apply interest group pressure on the executive, etc. Parliament must be able to enforce demands on the executive to improve performance, access or responsiveness. As a last resort, it must be able to remove the executive by impeachment or a vote of no confidence, or alter its priorities through budgetary or legislative amendments.

As well as control of the budget, public financial management is at the heart of development and may provide legislatures with a significant opportunity to influence events: they are normally responsible for examining and approving budgets, and for holding governments to account after the event. Their role in approving the budget provides an opportunity to ensure that governments are serious about poverty reduction or development aims generally. Their role as representatives of the electorate should enable them to influence taxation as well as expenditure policies. Effective scrutiny of the public accounts can ensure that money was used for the intended purposes, and should bring to light any misuse, or abuse. All this can add to the transparency of government processes, important to citizens’ right of accountability.

Citizen access to the parliament is crucial to a healthy legislative branch in any country. Parliament needs to have the trust of the people, and to be a credible watchdog in overseeing government and in dealing with corruption in public life. Citizens are unlikely to participate if they do not understand why parliament is there, and why it ought to matter to them. This is a matter of public civic education that can effectively start in schools and local communities. The media has a vital role in maintaining public interest in issues of the day and making sure that parliaments do not ignore abuses and problems. The public should have some understanding of the constraints and competing policy concerns that governments must live with. Parliament itself can encourage public participation by developing and disseminating information material and by organizing educational programs for young people. It can also encourage people to visit parliament and watch its proceedings, or encourage committees to hold open meetings and to visit all areas of the country to give local people the chance to see them in action and, on local issues, to contribute to the inquiry. Some parliaments broadcast plenary and committee proceedings and provide a parliamentary facility for responding to questions and complaints from citizens. This section goes over the different tools legislatures use to make citizen access and participation possible, also addressing some of their innovative practices they have implemented.

A parliament that is perceived as corrupt will not have the confidence and trust of the people, and is unlikely to cut much ice in its oversight role. Parliaments need an ethics regime to guide members through difficult decisions, to protect them against false allegations, and to investigate and deal with allegations that appear to have some foundation. Regimes vary from country to country, but essentially require members to be open about their sources of income and their interests outside parliament, to declare conflicts of interest when they arise, and to avoid compromising themselves by accepting gifts or lavish travel expenses. It is also important that members should not seek or accept payment from unofficial sources for undertaking parliamentary duties such as speaking in Parliament, asking a question, introducing a bill, or moving an amendment – or for urging colleagues or ministers to do any of these things.

Ethics regimes require a mechanism for enforcement and for sanctioning violations. Some parliaments have set up their own committees on ethics or standards; others have established independent bodies. Parliamentarians usually prefer the first option, but not necessarily for the best of reasons. The regulatory body should be an advisor as well as a policeman, to help legislators deal with ethical dilemmas by providing advice and guidance as well as applying sanctions.

MPs face difficult ethical problems – gifts and conflicts of interest, among others – and some may be tempted to use their positions for improper gain. This section goes over the national legal frameworks the country has advanced in order to fight corruption as well as international treaties regarding transparency the country has signed or ratified and has agreed to be a part of a bigger effort to address the issue.

Acknowledgements: This work follows part of the guidelines set by the Policy Division of the Department for International Development of DFID at “Helping Parliaments and Legislative Assemblies to work for the poor”, a document prepared July, 2004.

Glossary of Legislative Terms

AGENDA: A document describing the order of consideration of matters in the plenary or committee meetings of Congress. It is often prepared by a steering committee or leader of the Parliament for the plenary sessions and by the committee chair or bureau of each respective committee. In many countries the agenda must be posted ahead of time in a public place, or otherwise publicly distributed. Also referred to as Order of the day, order paper. (Spanish: Orden del día)
AGENCY: A government department of any kind. (Spanish: Dependencia)
BILL: Any proposed legislation from the time of its conception to the time it is passed into law. Also referred to as draft law, draft legislation. (Spanish: Proyecto de Ley)
BILL STATUS: A certain step in which the bill is located in the legislative process before it becomes a law. It is often important to know this in order to take actions regarding a bill. (Spanish: Estado parlamentario)
CHAMBER: The place where either the full House or Senate meets. It’s usually used to mean the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate itself. Also referred to as: House. (Spanish: Cámara)
CLAUSE (Spanish: Inciso)
A small group of legislators formed to consider specific matters. Although some countries refer to them as commissions, they are generally referred to as committees in this study for the sake of consistency. In countries where there is a functional difference between “committees” and “commissions”, both terms are used. (Spanish :Comisión (legislativa)).
CONGRESS: Parliament in its role as a lawmaking body. Also referred to as Legislature, Parliament, Houses. Chile: Corporaciones. (Spanish: Congreso).
Joint convening of both houses in a bicameral system.
Also referred to as Combined plenary sessions. (Spanish: Congreso en pleno/Asamblea legislativa)
CONSIDER A MATTER, See Discuss a Bill.
COUNCIL OF THE MAGISTRATURE (Spanish: Consejo de la Magistratura)
COURT OF APPEALS (Spanish: Cámara de Apelaciones)
CURFEW (Spanish: Estado de sitio)
DEPUTY: Members elected from their districts apportioned by their populations. Also referred to as Congressman/Congresswoman Legislator, lawmaker, representative. (Spanish: Diputado/a, legislador/a)
DEPUTY VICE PRESIDENT (Spanish: Vice Presidente 1°)
DISCUSS A BILL: Also referred to as consider a matter. (Spanish: Tratar un proyecto)
DRAFT BILL (Spanish: Borrador de proyecto de ley)
FEDERAL SYSTEM: A country where powers are divided between the two levels or orders of government: the federal and the provincial, state or unit governments. (Spanish: Sistema Federal)
(Spanish: Delito)
FLOOR SESSION: Regular meetings of the general assembly or the parliament, the place where the members sit. This may refer to the entire parliament in a unicameral legislature, or either of the two houses in a bicameral assembly. Also referred to as sittings, plenary sessions, floor debates. (Spanish: Sesión)
FLOWCHART (Spanish: Organigrama)
GALLERY: The gallery is above the Chamber and provides seating for the press, the public, staff, and other visitors whenever any of the houses are in session. (Spanish: Galería, balcón)
(Spanish: Contralor General de la República)
GOVERNMENT MODERNIZATION: (Spanish: Modernización del Estado)
HEARING See Interpellation
HIGHER EDUCATION (Spanish: Educación Media)
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Elected body in charge of lawmaking. Also referred to as Deputies’ Chamber, Lower Chamber, Lower House. Term in Spanish Cámara de Diputados. Colombia: Cámara de Representantes; Spain: Cortes Generales.
INTERPELLATION: The right of individual members of the parliament to pose official questions to members of the government. Responses are usually required by law and often given orally or in writing during a plenary session. Also referred to as Hearing. (Spanish: Interpelación)
JOURNAL OF THE SESSIONS: A publication which may print some or all of the following materials from Congress: promulgated laws, verbatim records, other reports, voting records, bills, agendas, calls to session. This publication is required by law in many countries, and there are often regulations regarding the frequency of its printing and its accessibility. Also referred to as Official Gazette (Spanish: Diario de Sesiones)
LAW: An act of Congress that has been signed by the president or passed over his veto.
Also referred to as Act. (Spanish: Ley)
LAWMAKING (Spanish: Elaboración de leyes)
LEGISLATIVE PROCESS: All the steps through which a bill must pass before it becomes law.
Term in Spanish Trámite legislativo
LEGISLATIVE PERIOD: It refers to the terms in parliament; usually there are one or two a year.
Also referred to as session. Term in Spanish Período parlamentario
LOBBY: A special interest group trying to influence the way legislators vote on a certain measure. Professional lobbies and lobbyists can be regulated by law. Term in Spanish Lobbyists
MAJORITARIAN REPRESENTATION: An electoral system in which the candidate who receives the majority of votes in a single mandate constituency receives a seat in parliament.
Term in Spanish Sistema mayoritario.
MAYOR Term in Spanish Intendente
MOTION OF CENSURE Term in Spanish Moción de censura
MINUTES: A concise summary of debate, often including description of issues for decision and vote results. Term in Spanish Minutas
PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS: Groupings of legislators for the purposes of parliamentary ermanen. Usually from along party or coalition lines. Also referred to as parliamentary factions
Term in Spanish Bloques parlamentarios:
Term in Spanish Labor Parlamentaria.
PERMANENT STAFF: Aides to members. Personal staff may handle constituent service, correspondence and public relations and give clerical, legal and legislative help.
Term in Spanish Planta permanente
PLENARY SESSION: Term in Spanish Sesión plenaria; See Floor Session
PRESIDENT OF THE HOUSE: The person who presides over the house’s plenary sessions and ensures that the rules of the House are followed. He/she is also the leader of the majority party in the chamber. The President is selected by the majority party’s members and formally elected by the full House at the beginning of each new Congress.
Also referred to as Speaker, Chair, presiding officer.
Term in Spanish Presidente
PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE: Usually The Vice President presides over the Senate. In the Vice President’s absence, the President pro Tempore, or a senator designated by the president pro tempore, presides over the chamber.
Term in Spanish Presidente del Senado
PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE: The chief of the Senate in the absence of the Vice President. The president pro tempore is elected by full membership of the Senate. A usual practice is to choose the Senator of the majority party.
Term in Spanish Presidente Provisional del Senado
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION: An electoral system in which parliamentary seats are assigned from party lists according to the percentage of votes received by each party. Sometimes used in combination with a system that allows voters to express a preference for particular parliamentarians. In contrast to Majoritarian representation.
Term in Spanish Representación Proporcional
PUBLIC POST Term in Spanish Cargo público
QUORUM: The number of members whose presence is necessary for the transaction of business.
Term in Spanish Quorum
REGISTRY Term in Spanish Acta
REGISTRY OFFICER: Term in Spanish Oficial de actas
REGULATION ACT Term in Spanish Ley orgánica
RULES OF PROCEDURE: A legislative act or acts containing the rules of procedure that govern the parliament. In some countries, the Constitution provides extensive guidelines regarding the parliament’s rules of procedure (Brazil)
Also referred to as: Standing orders, parliamentary regulations.
Term in Spanish Reglamento interno.
SCHEDULE See. Agenda
SEAT: Members’ benches. Generally presidential systems place seats in a semicircle facing the rostrum. In some legislatures seats are not assigned (US) and in others they are (Argentina)
Term in Spanish Banca
SENATE: Elected body in charge of lawmaking
Also referred to as: Higher Chamber, Higher House
Term in Spanish Cámara de Senadores
SENATOR: Members elected from their districts apportioned by their populations
Also referred to as House
Term in Spanish Senador
SPEAKER See: President of the House
SPECIAL COMMITTEES: Generally established ad hoc to consider extraordinary matters.
Also referred to as Investigative committees
Term in Spanish Comisiones especiales
STANDING COMMITTEES: A working subdivision of either house of parliament that prepares legislation or conducts investigations and are of a permanent fashion.
Also referred to as Permanent committees
Term in Spanish Comisiones permanentes.
STEERING COMMITTEE: A committee comprised by the leaders of Congress, often a speaker, deputy speakers, and committee chairmen (as well as party leaders) which governs the daily operations of Congress. This committee is responsible for developing daily agendas and many of the parliament regulations concerning access.
Term in Spanish Comisión de Labor Parlamentaria (Chile: Mesa)
STANDING ORDERS See: Rules of procedure.
SUPERIOR TRIBUNAL OF JUSTICE Term in Spanish Tribunales Superiores de Justicia
VERBATIM RECORD: A word by word transcript of a debate, compiled sb stenographers or tape recorded and later transcribed.
Term in Spanish Versión taquigráfica.
Also refered to as: stenographic stranscript, stenogram
VICE PRESIDENT Term in Spanish Vicepresidente
UNION Term in Spanish Gremio, Sindicato
UNDER SECRETARY Term in Spanish Pro Secretario
UNITARY SYSTEM Term in Spanish República Unitaria
UNIVERSAL SUFRAGE Term in Spanish Sufragio universal
VOTING DISPLAY PANELS: Some legislatures have display panels that are part of the electronic voting system. Members are listed, and beside each name are lights to indicate how each has voted.
Term in Spanish Panel de votación
VOTING MAJORITIES: Simple majority: More than 50 percent of those present
Absolute majority: A majority of all those entitled to vote, regardless of how many are present.
Qualified majority: A majority requirement greater than 50 percent (2/3 or different fractions depending on the country)
Term in Spanish Mayorías
VOTING METHODS: Type of voting used to make decisions in parliament.
Open vote: Any vote taken which allows observers to see how each member of parliament has voted on a given issue.
RECORDED VOTE: Any vote which is documented according to how each parliamentarian voted. Can be conducted by division, roll call, electronic voting or by using signed ballot papers. Recorded votes are usually published.
UNRECORDED VOTE: Any vote in which no record is kept of how each parliamentarian voted. Can be conducted by voice vote, by a show of hands or of cards, by standing vote or by secret ballot. Some scholars include showing hands and standing votes as recorded, presumably because they are open forms of voting, unlike voice votes and secret ballots. They are considered to be unrecorded forms of voting in this study because it is not permanently documented how parliamentarians vote.
DIVISION: A form of recorded vote in which members of parliament walk different designated posts depending on their vote. Sometimes used in combination with a teller vote. Also sometimes used to refer to a standing vote.
ELECTRONIC VOTE: A vote executed by electronic machine which counts and totals the votes from each member of parliament. These results are often displayed in the voting chamber and published according to how each member voted.
ROLL CALL VOTE: A vote in which individual names of parliamentarians are read off one by one and each responds with his or her vote.
STANDING VOTE: A form of open vote which requires parliamentarias to stand in order to represent their vote for or against a motion. Sometimes referred to as a division vote: The results are not usually published according to how each individual parliamentarian voted.
TELLER VOTE : A vote which requires parliamentarians to walk by a certain predetermined position to register their vote. Votes are usually tallied by official counters and recorded by name of parliamentarian.
VOICE VOTE: A vote requiring members to state simultaneously their approval or disapproval of an issue. Although this is often the initial vote taken on an issue, it is usually supplemented with a more precise method of voting of the result is in doubt. Sometimes referred to as a nominal vote.
VOTING SLIP Term in Spanish Boleta electoral. Also referred to as: Ballot paper

Sources: Author’s own elaboration based on each country´s uses of the terms; Edwin Rekosh, Parliamentary transparency in Europe and North America (Washington, DC: International Human Rights Law Group, 1995); John Bejermi, How Parliament Works (Ottawa, Canada, 2000); Ellen Greenberg, The House and Senate Explained (New York, W.W. Norton & Companies, 1996).

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