With the successful completion of federal parliamentary elections and provincial assembly elections we now have a picture of the new parliament. Members of the parliament are often dubbed as lawmakers, given their role in the law-making function of the parliament. Yet it is also true that the parliament never makes the law in the truest sense of the word. Drafts of legislation originate within the upper echelons of bureaucracy. They are scrutinized first by the executive and then finally sent for the parliament’s approval. Scholarly work has often labeled parliament as merely a rubber stamp, especially the parliaments that are modeled after Westminster.
Nepal’s law-making process is not different from the rest of the world as far as the origination of the draft legislation and its scrutiny first by the executive is concerned. In recent years, equal emphasis has also been placed on the policy power of parliaments. This has followed from a detailed analysis of how parliamentarians use speech and their own participation in House sessions and committee meetings to influence policies and legislation. With the new session of the second federal parliament taking place on Tuesday, it is pertinent to analyze whether or not for the past five years, Nepal’s first federal parliament influenced policies through speech and participation.
During its five-year tenure, Nepal’s first federal parliament formed after the 2017 general elections successfully passed 95 laws, with the House of Representatives passing 73 and the National Assembly passing 25 of them. This is a remarkable feat when we consider the number of obstructions the House faced in the form of two dissolutions and the Covid-19 pandemic. Official attendance records to a larger degree suggest that any session of the House of Representatives has been attended by at least 200 members of parliament. This figure is comparable to Nepal’s counterparts in south Asia, where average attendance trends for Members of Parliament has hovered around 80 percent. It is suggestive that for a large number of laws that have been approved by the House of Representatives, lawmakers participated in some form of debate or deliberation. Yet we also saw visuals of a thin House.
Nepal’s first federal parliament formed after the 2017 general elections successfully passed 95 laws, with the House of Representatives passing 73 and the National Assembly passing 25 of them.
In fact, regarding the quorum–the fulfillment of the requirement of presence of at least 25 percent of members of parliament before presenting any proposal for decision–have been raised, the number of members present during the quorum call is drastically lower than what attendance records have suggested. Members of the parliament often shirk meeting the attendance requirement. Of the 33 times, a question of quorum has been raised, there are only 17 instances when 69 or more members of the parliament were present. Indeed, these numbers do suggest that House floor debates and deliberations are not how policy gets influenced. In Nepal, the other mechanism is more likely to occur.
Except for perhaps the Finance Bill and Appropriation Bill, no other bill is discussed within the floor of the parliament. It is always discussed and deliberated by a small group of people within specialized thematic committees. Committees in the House of Representatives have 23-25 members. Unlike the house floor, committees require a quorum of at least 51 percent. During the past five years, average committee attendance hovered around 69 percent of its members. On average, a committee prepares the draft report of the bill after two meetings. Despite the low figures, members of the parliament have been able to influence policies through committee meetings, which is evident from the proposed amendments to the draft bill proposed by committees.
Not all bills are discussed and deliberated for a long period of time and in the presence of large numbers of members of parliament. For instance, except perhaps for the Insurance Bill, the Finance Committee has generally presented its report within two meetings, where each meeting was attended by an average of 69 percent of the members. In contrast, nearly all bills discussed and deliberated on by the State-Affairs Committee have seen the presence of 78 percent of its members and meetings have been held more than two times before a report is finally prepared.
In general, members of the parliament devote more time to bills that are political in nature. By political we mean, bills that are drafted on issues that were a major part of the political manifestos of the political parties or bills that have received significant attention from the media and civil society organizations for either their apparent shortcomings or the potential for foul play. It is also in these bills that we truly find the policy making power of the parliament.
Nepal’s parliament is not merely a rubber stamp, although not all bills are scrutinized and deliberated on as they should be. During the past five years, it has become evident that the decision for a parliamentarian to participate in any deliberation of a particular bill is driven by the relative importance of that bill within the political sphere. The parliament indeed does have policy making powers, but its exercise has been limited, as the parliamentary practice of Nepal itself grows, so can the policy making power of parliament.
Yatindra KC is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization. He can be reached at [email protected]samriddhi.org