The constitution establishes a bicameral Congress, comprising a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. Senators must be at least thirty years of age and deputies at least twenty-one. Both must be native-born Venezuelans. Each body is elected at the same time, with the same congressional ballot, every five years. A party list system of proportional representation is the method of selection for both chambers; voters, therefore, do not cast ballots for individual candidates. The only deviation in the selection of members lies in the fact that the Senate also includes former presidents of the republic. The traditional provision of alternates (suplentes) allows persons so designated to hold the position to which a principal has been elected in the latter's absence.
Many felt that the most important unit within the Congress was the party caucus (fracción), made up of members of a party's elected delegation to either chamber. A chairman chosen by its members presided over the caucus. Chairmen were effectively preselected by their party's national central committee; balloting by the congressional delegations merely ratified the choice.
Revenue, budget, and taxation bills must originate in the lower house, which also has the authority to censure ministers. The upper house is responsible for the initiation of bills relating to treaties and international agreements. The Senate also approves certain presidential appointments to diplomatic posts and the promotions of high-ranking military officers.
The Venezuelan constitution provides for parliamentary immunity, but this immunity may be revoked by a member's chamber. In 1963 the Supreme Court upheld the right of the president to ban political parties deemed subversive of democracy. Congress, however, has remained responsible for its own organization and regulation. Each chamber elects its own presiding officer. The president of the Senate serves as the president of Congress; the president of the Chamber of Deputies serves as the vice president of Congress.
The political significance of the Venezuelan Congress has increased throughout the post-1958 democratic era. The staffs of congressional committees handled a heavy legislative workload. Initially, each chamber had the same ten permanent standing committees, but in 1966 the Chamber of Deputies created the Committee on Fiscal Affairs. All other committees have continued as parallel structures in both houses of the Congress. Two committees in each chamber deal with internal affairs and foreign relations, four committees with economic matters, and four others with service issues, such as education, tourism, and defense.
The most important committee, however, is the Delegated Committee. An interim body created by the 1961 constitution, it includes the president and vice president of Congress and twenty-one other members selected on the basis of party representation in Congress. The delegated committee serves during those periods when Congress is adjourned; it exercises oversight functions and acts for Congress in its relations with the executive. It may convene Congress in extraordinary session if it deems it necessary.
The legislature considers, debates, approves, rejects, or alters legislation. Congress also has the authority to question ministers and to have them explain adopted policies. It can censure executive personnel, with the exception of the president. Moreover, it can impeach the president by agreement between the Senate and the Supreme Court. This has not happened since the adoption of the 1961 constitution, however.
In practice, the legislature does not share equal status with the executive branch. The executive branch, not Congress, introduces most significant legislation. In addition, in certain instances, bills may emanate from the Supreme Court; the constitution also provides that a bill may be initiated directly by the petition of a minimum of 20,000 voters. The president has the authority to veto legislation, although Congress can override that veto. When a veto is overridden, the president may ask Congress to reconsider those parts of the bill he finds objectionable.
Two senators are elected from each state and two from the federal district. Additional members, around five or so, are selected by a system of proportional representation that ensures minority parties a voice in the legislature. Former presidents may serve as senators for life, if they so desire. They are considered elder statesmen and are often consulted by their colleagues on matters of policy and political strategies. All other legislators are elected by universal suffrage for five-year terms concurrent with that of the president. Unlike the president, legislators may be immediately reelected.
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