The legislative branch consists of the unicameral National Congress elected for a four-year term of office at the same time as the president. When the country returned to civilian democratic rule in 1982, the National Congress had a membership of eighty-two deputies. This number was increased to 134 deputies for the 1985 national elections and then reduced to 128 for the 1989 national elections--it remained 128 for the 1993 national elections. The constitution, as amended in 1988, establishes a fixed number of 128 principal deputies and the same number of alternate deputies. If the principal deputy cannot complete his or her term, the National Congress may call the alternate deputy to serve the remainder of the term.
The National Congress conducts regular annual sessions beginning on January 25 and adjourning on October 31. These sessions, however, may be extended. In addition, special sessions may be called at the request of the executive branch through the Permanent Committee of Congress, provided that a simple majority of deputies agrees. A simple majority of the total number of principal deputies also constitutes a quorum for the installation of the National Congress and the holding of meetings. The Permanent Committee of Congress is a body of nine deputies and their alternates, appointed before the end of regular sessions, that remains on duty during the adjournment of the National Congress. The National Congress is headed by a directorate that is elected by a majority of deputies, which is headed by a president (who also presides over the Permanent Committee of Congress when the National Congress is not in session) and includes at least two vice presidents and two ministers.
In fulfilling its responsibilities, the National Congress has numerous commissions or committees for the study of issues that come before the legislature. In addition to committees that cover legislation (first, second, and third debate), protocol, and the budget, many other committees parallel the ministries of the executive branch, including government and justice, foreign affairs, economic affairs and trade, finance and public credit, national defense and security, public health, public education, communications and public works, labor and social welfare, natural resources, and culture and tourism. According to the internal regulations of the National Congress, between three and seven deputies sit on each committee. In addition, nonstanding or extraordinary committees may cover other issues, and special committees may be established to investigate matters of national interest. Because of the executive-driven nature of the legislative process, the committees are somewhat underutilized and play only a minor role in the legislative process or congressional decision making. Aggravating this underutilization is the fact that no staff members are assigned to the committees, so that necessary studies or reports for the committees must be are solicited from outside of the National Congress.
In addition to its legislative activities, the National Congress also has other extensive powers, particularly regarding other branches of the government and other institutions of the Honduran state. The National Congress is charged with electing numerous government officials: the nine principal justices and seven alternates of the Supreme Court of Justice, including its president; the commander in chief of the armed forces; the comptroller general; the attorney general; and the director of administrative probity. In practice, however, the National Congress generally rubberstamps the choices of the president, or, in the case of the commander in chief of the armed forces, of the military. The National Congress may declare that there are grounds for impeachment of certain high-ranking government officials, including the president and presidential designates, Supreme Court justices, cabinet ministers and deputy secretaries, and the commander in chief of the armed forces.
In its oversight role, the National Congress may approve or disapprove the administrative conduct of the other two branches of government, the TNE, the comptroller general, the attorney general, and the decentralized institutions. The National Congress may also question the cabinet secretaries and other officials of the government, decentralized institutions, and other entities concerning matters related to public administration.
With regard to the military and national security, as noted above, the National Congress elects the commander in chief of the armed forces from a list of three proposed by the Consuffaa. The National Congress may fix the permanent number of members of the armed forces and confer all ranks from major to major general, at the joint proposal of the commander in chief of the armed forces and the president. It may authorize or refuse the president's request for the crossing of foreign troops through national territory. It may also authorize the entrance of foreign military missions of technical assistance or cooperation in the country. The National Congress may declare an executive-branch restriction or suspension of individual rights or guarantees in accordance with constitutional provisions, or it may modify or disapprove of the restriction or suspension enacted by the president.
With regard to foreign policy, the National Congress has the power to declare war or make peace at the request of the president. The National Congress also may approve or disapprove international treaties signed by the executive branch.
Regarding government finances, the National Congress is charged with adopting annually (and modifying if desired) the general budget of revenue and expenditures based on the executive branch's proposal. The National Congress has control over public revenues and has power to levy taxes, assessments, and other public charges. It approves or disapproves the formal accounts of public expenditures based on reports submitted by the comptroller general and loans and similar agreements related to public credit entered into by the executive branch.
The legislative branch has two auxiliary agencies, the Office of the Comptroller General and the Directorate of Administrative Probity, both of which are functionally and administratively independent. The Office of the Comptroller General is exclusively responsible for the post-auditing of the public treasury. It maintains the administration of public funds and properties and audits the accounts of officials and employees who handle these funds and properties. It audits the financial operations of agencies, entities, and institutions of the government, including decentralized institutions. It examines the books kept by the state and accounts rendered by the executive branch to the National Congress on the operations of the public treasury and reports to the National Congress on its findings. The Directorate of Administrative Probity audits the accounts of public officials or employees to prevent their unlawful enrichment.
Some observers maintain that the National Congress gradually became a more effective and independent institution in the decade after the country returned to civilian rule in 1982. According to political scientist Mark Rosenberg, under the presidency of Suazo Córdova the institution appeared only to function as a rubber stamp for the executive branch, with little interest in promoting or creating policy initiatives. Under the Azcona government (1986-90), however, the National Congress became more assertive in its relations with the executive branch--with a more vigorous use of its oversight powers and more active interest in developing legislation. This trend continued under the Callejas presidency. In 1993 a new legislative support body, the Data Processing and Legislative Studies Center (Centro de Informática y Estudios Legislativas--CIEL), was created with the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (AID) to help provide computer and analytical support to the committees and deputies of the National Congress.
Other observers stress the executive dominance over the legislative branch in almost all areas of public policy. They point out that the tradition of a strong executive is deeply embedded in the national psyche, with the National Congress itself not willing or able to take responsibility for its congressional obligations. The general public view of the National Congress is that deputies use their offices for personal and political gain. As a result, most people contact executive branch officials to promote causes, a practice that reinforces executive dominance and makes it difficult for the congressional leadership to transform the National Congress into an equal partner in government.
The nation's electoral law also limits the independence and ultimately the effectiveness of the National Congress. Elections for the National Congress are held at the same time as presidential elections, and voters must use a unitary ballot that contains a party's presidential candidate, as well as its list of congressional candidates for each department. Voters are not allowed to split their tickets for national offices; however, in November 1993, voters for the first time could spilt their ticket for president and mayor. The percentage of votes that a presidential candidate receives in each department determines the number of deputies from each party selected to represent that department. In effect, voters are not sure whom they are electing to the National Congress. There is no direct accountability to the electorate. Instead, deputies respond to party leadership, and party loyalty and bloc voting are the norm. The two major parties dominate the National Congress, with smaller parties finding it difficult to gain representation. In the 1989 national elections, the PNH won seventy-one seats in the National Congress, and the PLH captured fifty-five seats. The small Pinu won just two seats, and the Honduran Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Honduras--PDCH) gained no seats. Efforts to change the unitary ballot for the presidential and legislative candidates for the November 1993 elections were unsuccessful, largely because the two dominant parties overcame pressure by the two smaller parties for separate ballots.
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