Although Congress generally played a passive policy-making role, it was a major actor in national politics. Indeed, Congress had elected every civilian ruler to take office from the late 1970s to 1985.
Historically, Congress had been subordinated to the executive; the intention of the Constitution of 1967 was to consolidate a strong presidential system. Nonetheless, within the context of a multiparty system, the Constitution of 1967 provides important mechanisms that allow for a more influential and active Congress. Congress has the right to pass, abrogate, interpret, and modify all laws. A bill must be passed by the legislature and must be signed by the president to become a law. Although the president may veto a bill, Congress may override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote.
The Constitution provides for a bicameral legislature: a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate. Every year, beginning on August 6 (Independence Day), Congress meets in La Paz for 90 sessions; the number of sessions may be expanded to 120 if requested by the executive or if favored by a majority of members. Congress may also meet for extraordinary sessions to debate specific bills if requested by the executive and if favored by a majority of its members.
Congress has twenty-two prerogatives, which can be divided broadly into its economic policy, foreign policy, and political powers. Congress's principal economic policy function is approval of the annual budget that the executive must submit to Congress before the thirtieth session. This constitutional requirement for approval has rarely been respected, however. In 1987 and 1988, Congress approved the budget for the first time since 1967, although not within the first thirty sessions. Because budgets often faced opposition in Congress, governments usually approved them through executive decree. Congress also has the power to establish the monetary system and is responsible, in theory, for approving all economic policy. Development programs, for example, must be submitted to Congress, and any loans contracted by the government must also be approved by the legislature.
Congress's foreign policy prerogatives primarily concerned its power to approve all treaties, accords, and international agreements. Although this practice was not always respected in the late 1980s, Congress must also decide whether or not to allow foreign troops to travel through or operate in Bolivian territory. Moreover, Congress decides when Bolivian troops may travel abroad.
Congress's political powers include the naming of justices of the Supreme Court of Justice and members of the National Electoral Court, as well as the right to create new provinces, cantones (cantons), and municipal districts. One of its most important prerogatives is to declare amnesty for political crimes. Its most significant power, however, is to resolve elections in which the winning candidate has not garnered a majority of the vote.
Congress possesses wide-ranging oversight powers over executive behavior. A single senator or deputy may call ministers and other members of the executive to testify through a procedure known as petición de informe oral (request for an oral report). If the report is unsatisfactory, the senator or deputy may convert a simple request into an interpellation, which may be resolved only through a vote of confidence or a vote for censure. In Bolivian parliamentary tradition, a censured minister must resign and be replaced by the executive. A petición de informe escrito (request for a written report) may also be sent to the executive regarding specific policies, events, and actions. The Senate or Chamber of Deputies may also call attention to problems and current issues through minutas de comunicación (minutes of communication).
Congress also has the power of specific indictment. For a juicio de responsabilidades (malfeasance trial) before the Supreme Court of Justice, a two-thirds majority vote is required to indict individuals accused of wrongdoing while in office. In 1986 Congress indicted former dictator General Luis García Meza Tejada (1980-81); in early 1989, he was being tried in absentia by the Supreme Court of Justice.
In addition to shared powers, each chamber has specific responsibilities. The Chamber of Deputies elects justices of the Supreme Court of Justice from a list submitted by the Senate, approves the executive's requests for the declaration of a state of siege, and transmits to the president of the republic a list of names from which the latter must select the heads of social and economic institutions in which the state participates. The Senate hears accusations against members of the Supreme Court of Justice raised by the Chamber of Deputies; submits to the president a list of candidates for comptroller general, attorney general, and superintendent of the national banking system; approves ambassadors; and approves rank promotions in the armed forces every year.
Elected deputies and senators enjoy immunity from prosecution for the duration of their term; however, a two-thirds majority may retract this privilege from a specific legislator. In 1969, for example, owing to pressure from President Barrientos, Congress lifted the immunity from two deputies who had initiated a "responsibilities trial" against the president. This clearly confirmed the primacy of presidential power.
Deputies are elected through universal suffrage based on a complex proportional representation system. A 1986 electoral law, used for the first time in 1989, calls for the election of 130 deputies. Bolivia has adopted the Spanish tradition of electing suplentes (alternates) as well. Hence, every elected deputy has an alternate in the event of his or her death, resignation, or disability. Based on population density in 1980, the Chamber's 130 seats were divided as follows among Bolivia's nine departments: La Paz, 28; Potosí, 19; Cochabamba, 18; Santa Cruz, 17; Chuquisaca, 13; Oruro, 10; Tarija, 9; Beni, 9; and Pando, 7.
Deputies are elected for four-year terms, with the entire membership facing election every fourth year. To become a deputy, a person must be at least twenty-five years of age, a Bolivian by birth, a registered voter, have no outstanding penal charges, and not be a government employee, a member of the clergy, or a contractor for public works.
Every legislative year the Chamber of Deputies elects a new leadership. Its leadership comprises a president, two vice presidents, and five secretaries. The day-to-day operations of the chamber are the responsibility of an oficial mayor, or high official. Since 1982 the leadership has reflected the chamber's party composition, although the political parties with the greatest number of seats control the top three positions.
Every new legislative year also carries with it the reordering of committee memberships. In 1989 the Chamber of Deputies had seventeen committees that reflected broadly the structure of the executive cabinet. Since 1982 the committees, which have five members each, also have reflected (with some exceptions) the political subdivisions of the chamber as a whole. Usually, committee chairs are reserved for members of the party in control of the chamber, but they may be used as bargaining tools. Because committee memberships are reorganized each year, seniority is a not a factor. Owing to the large number of political parties represented in the lower chamber, the process of approving bills in committee and in the house as a whole is a protracted exercise.
The vice president of the nation is president of the Senate, as well as president of Congress. The Senate is composed of twenty- seven senators, three per department. The winning party in each department secures two senators, and the runner-up controls the third. This arrangement ensures minority representation in the upper house. Like the deputies, senators are elected for four- year terms. To become a senator, one must be at least thirty-five years old, a Bolivian by birth, a registered voter, and must not be a government employee, a member of the clergy, or a contractor for public works. As in the lower chamber, alternates are also elected.
In August, at the beginning of a new legislative year, the Senate elects a president, two vice presidents, and four secretaries. Because fewer parties are represented in this chamber, electing the leadership is usually a rapid and smooth process.
Like the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate has seventeen committees, and every legislative year a complete membership turnover takes place. Each committee must have five members drawn from every party represented in the chamber. In general, bills spend less time in committee in the Senate (and they are also approved more rapidly by the whole chamber) than in the Chamber of Deputies. This is largely because fewer political parties are represented in the Senate.
Committees in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are not specialized bodies, and attempts were not made to secure competent legislative support staff until the late 1980s. Advisers to the committees were selected more on the basis of political affiliation than on expertise. Committees were also plagued by the lack of an adequate library and reference service. The Senate library, which theoretically serves Congress, was woefully inadequate. Although every session was recorded on tape, an efficient congressional record service did not exist. The transcripts of the 1982-85 sessions, for example, did not become available until the late 1980s.
A recurring problem in both chambers was the prevalence of obsolete rules of procedure dating back to the 1904-05 legislative year. Procedural rules have slowed the approval of bills and have contributed in large measure to making Congress's legislative function obsolete.
During congressional recesses, the Constitution provides for a comisión de congreso (congressional commission) to be elected by the members of each chamber. Nine senators and eighteen deputies, including the president of each chamber and the vice president of the republic, are elected to this commission.
The congressional commission ensures that the Constitution and civil rights are respected while Congress is not in session. It is also provided with the same executive oversight capacity as Congress. Through a two-thirds majority vote, the commission may convoke an extraordinary session of Congress. Moreover, in the case of a national emergency, it may authorize the president, by a two-thirds vote, to issue decrees that carry the full force of law. Finally, the commission may design bills to be submitted to Congress during the regular legislative year.
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