Argentina’s National Congress: Structure, Powers and Proceedings

In a new blog for our Parliament Overviews series, Florencia Corbelle introduces the Argentinian National Congress.

Argentina overview pic

Argentina is a representative, federal republic consisting of twenty-three provinces and an autonomous city. It has adopted a presidential political system so government is divided into three separate and independent branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) and a Public Ministry. The Legislative Branch is composed of the vice-president, the National Congress, the General Auditing Office of the Nation and the Ombudsman.

The National Congress came into being with the Constitution of 1853. However, its powers and constitution have undergone some minor changes since then. It is a bicameral congress, comprising the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Both Houses are located in the Palace of Congress and surrounding buildings, most of them placed at what is known as the Legislative Block.

Size, structure and electoral system

Since the 1994 amendment of the Argentine Constitution, the Senate is comprised of seventy-two senators, three for each province and three for the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. Senators are elected to six-year terms –a third of the Chamber being renewed every two years– through direct election on a closed party list proportional basis, with two seats granted to the party receiving the highest number of votes and the additional seat awarded to the first minority party. Candidates must be at least thirty years old, have been an Argentinian citizen for six years and have a two years’ residence or be native of the province for which they aspire to hold office.

The Chamber of Deputies, on the other hand, represents people and is comprised of 257 Deputies. They are elected to four-year terms –half of the Chamber being renewed every two years– through direct election on a twenty-four district closed party list proportional basis. In other words, seats are allocated in proportion to each district’s population varying from a minimum of five to a maximum of seventy deputies per district which results, among other issues (Calvo y Escolar, 2005), in overrepresentation of less populated areas. Like senators, candidates must be at least twenty-five years old, have been an Argentinian citizen for four years and have two years’ residence or be native of the province for which they aspire to hold office.

Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate have a multi-party composition and, since 2017, a quota law lays down that at least one third of the candidates in each party legislative-election ballot must be women placed in electable list positions, but there are no quotas for minority representation.

Prior to legislative elections, a mandatory single-day all party/alliance federal primary is held. In both primary and legislative elections citizens aged sixteen years and above can vote, being compulsory, a few exceptions aside, for those aged between eighteen and seventy. Argentine citizens living abroad may vote in consular offices.

Legislators

Although legislators may seek re-election indefinitely, the country’s electoral rules put re-election in the hands of local party boss(es) who aiming to safeguard their position within the provincial party structure tend to favour job rotation of their underlings. Therefore, each election brings in a high percentage of new members than either do not run for or are not elected to renew their mandate. As a result, most of them have experience in party politics, in provincial legislatures or in the National or Provincial Executive Branch, but few of them know how the National Congress actually works. Furthermore, these rules reduce legislators’ incentives to specialize and develop a professional legislative career (Jones et al, 2002).

Main powers of the legislature

According to the Constitution, the main responsibility of the National Congress is to elaborate laws and monitor the Executive Branch. It has legislative authority over customs, currency, trade, foreign affairs, defence, general educational plans, industry, communications, transport, immigration and indigenous affairs as well as in matters of civil, commercial and criminal law, mining, labour and social security, among others. It rules the Central Bank of Argentina, settles domestic and foreign debt payments, checks and approves the government’s budget and regulates the free navigation of inland rivers and the post offices of the Nation. It has also power to levy taxes, borrow money, grant subsidies to provinces, declare in state of siege in case of domestic commotion, order the federal intervention of a province, create courts, establish national and provincial boundaries, and decide about the use and sale of national lands.

Additionally, each House holds exclusive rights. The Chamber of Deputies is hereby empowered to receive popular initiative bills, initiate popular consultations regarding proposed legislation, introduce bills concerning taxes and troop recruitment, and impeach the president, vice-president, head of the Cabinet of Ministers, cabinet ministers, and members of the Supreme Court before the Senate. Whereas the Senate is empowered to try politicians impeached by the Chamber of Deputies, authorize the president to declare in state of siege in case of foreign attack as well as to initiate bills regarding joint tax participation and the harmonious growth and balanced development of the Nation. Senate must also give consent to presidential appointment of judges, ambassadors, plenipotentiary cabinet members, commercial attaches and higher officers of the Armed Forces.

Parliament organisation and proceedings

The authorities and administrative organisation of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate is slightly different, but both have a president, three vice-presidents as well as parliamentary, administrative and operational coordination secretaries and assistant secretaries, each of whom manages various directorates that make parliament run on a daily basis.

National Congress business revolves around the decision-making process over bills, administrative decrees, communication, resolution and declaration proposals as well as messages from the Executive Branch. Regarding bills, they may be presented by deputies, senators, the president and, since 1994, by popular initiative. Bills, the latter excepted, may start in either chamber. The chamber in which the bill is initiated is called the “chamber of origin”. Once approved, it goes to the “revising chamber”. If both Houses approve the bill, and the Executive Branch does not exercise its veto powers, it becomes law.

Legislative procedure is similar in both chambers, political parties and committees form its organisational backbone, and it’s ruled by the Deputies’ and Senators’ Standing Orders. To start with, bills are introduced through the Office for Incoming Submissions, where they are registered and numbered. Once they are communicated in the floor, they are referred to committees for their consideration. Each chamber has a large number of committees with specific policy jurisdictions. Committee seats and leadership positions (president, vice-president, secretary) are allocated among the parties in rough proportion to the percentage of seats held by them in the Chamber. In the course of past decades, many committees were created generating superposition of policy jurisdiction. Such growth was, some time ago, explained by the need to accelerate the debate of certain bills and currently related to the demand for new committee leadership positions: committee chairmanship is a highly valued commodity since, among other prerogatives, chairmen receive extra resources that allows them to hire more staff and control the permanent staff assigned to the committee.

Committees’ work is structured in advisors’ and deputies’ meetings. Each committee chairman has power to decide whether bills submitted for committee consideration are discussed or not. If they are, amendments to bills reported from committee are attached to a unified dossier which includes the majority report, minority reports from dissenting committee members, and observations raised by other fellow legislators. However, bills reported from committees may not reach the floor. First, they must surpass review in pre-floor party meetings to be then scheduled for plenary vote in Chamber Directorate meetings, where the president and vice-president of each chamber together with party leaders set the floor agenda. Nevertheless, motions to schedule bills with or without committee reports on the current session or in a following session may be presented at the beginning of each plenary session in order to bypass committee stage and/or the Directorate’s scheduling prerogatives, but most of them need special majorities to be accepted. Thus, they have explicit consent from senior party members and have been at most agreed with other party leaders (who are at least previously tipped off), which accounts for their high success rates.

Either way, there is no guarantee that bills will be approved. Although few bills have been utterly rejected in the plenary floor, quorum rules and different special floor motions may be strategically put into play in order to delay, stop or reschedule debate and even send bills back to committee stage.

Legislative success and the opening up of Parliament

Argentine Congress scholars have devoted much of their effort to explain the relationship between executive and legislative branches, more specifically, the president’s, and individual legislators’ legislative success surpassing the different bill stages under unified and divided governments in both majority- and plurality-led congresses. In any case, legislative success has been ascribed to different agenda setting powers which tend to be tightly linked to fluctuations in public opinion for the executive and vary considerably regarding individual legislators mostly depending on whether or not they have a fellow partisan in the presidency, belong to the majority or plurality party, hold leadership positions and possess political capital (i.e. have control over the number of committees a bill is sent to, capacity to promote legislation and/or gatekeeping authority), and characteristics specific to each proposal such as addressed issues, amount and partisan membership of co-sponsors and number of committees it is sent to (cf. Calvo, 2014).

This literature has proven useful to understand how Congress works and how members of the legislative and executive branches “play the game”. However, after the 2001 crisis reform packages were introduced aiming to increase accountability and civil society’s engagement in this institutional scenario. As a result, not only new and more popular spaces of discussion were created, but also profound changes were generated in the ways in which legislators build alliances, generate consensus and political agreements, in a few words, the ways in which they do politics and, therefore, in the ways in which they had until then conceived, guided, thought of and even valued their own work. Yet, despite the significant corpus of studies on parliament, the growing influence of civil society in the design and debate of public policies in the legislative arena remains, few exceptions aside, largely unexplored (cf. Corbelle, 2018).

Notes

Florencia Corbelle holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), a postdoctoral scholarship from the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, and is a research fellow of the Equipo de Antropología Política y Jurídica (Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, UBA).

References

Calvo, E. 2014.  Legislator Success in Fragmented Congresses in Argentina: Plurality Cartels, Minority Presidents, and Lawmaking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Calvo, E. and Escolar, M. 2005. La Nueva Política de Partidos en la Argentina: Crisis Política, Realineamientos Partidarios y Reforma Electoral. Houston/Buenos Aires: Pent/Prometeo.

Corbelle, F. 2018. El activismo político de los usuarios de drogas: De la clandestinidad al Congreso Nacional. Buenos Aires: Teseo Press.

Jones, M. P., Saiegh, S., Spiller, P. T. and Tommasi, M. 2002. “Amateur Legislators‒Professional Politicians: The Consequences of Party-Centered Electoral Rules in a Federal System”. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 46, No. 3: 656-669.

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