Brazil: Congress Shows Leadership on COVID-19

By Beatriz Rey*

National Congress of Brazil, Plenary Session, 2020/ Senado Federal/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Brazilian Congress has been the leading force in combating the COVID‑19 pandemic and its disastrous impact on the Brazilian economy, made necessary by the disorganization of the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro in proposing and securing the approval of legislation. The President of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, recently pointed out that, following a trend that predates Bolsonaro, no substantial vote would have occurred without legislators’ leadership.

  • Political scientists have ranked Brazilian presidents as among the traditionally most powerful in the world. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, presidents in Brazil can initiate almost any type of bill in Congress, enabling them to be the dominant player behind major policy reforms. However, this pattern began to shift in the 2000s. Political scientist Acir Almeida has documented 2009 as the year in which Congress – for the first time ever – passed more legislation of its own drafting than that proposed by the presidency. In that Congressional session (2007-2010), 371 laws were legislator-sponsored – more than three times the 113 President-sponsored laws passed. The number of laws sponsored by the presidency dropped to 86 in the next Congressional session (2011-2014), compared to 297 by Congressmen. Between 2015 and 2018, lawmakers approved 369 of their own bills, while only 42 executive-sponsored bills became law. 

Congress has especially exerted leadership during the pandemic, during which the coronavirus has dominated the legislative agenda. (Almost half of the 133 bills that Congress passed last year were linked to the public health and economic impact of COVID‑19.) Legislators proposed 96 percent of the total 2,377 pandemic-related bills drafted. Bills initiated by the Legislative and the Executive branches experienced similar approval rates – roughly 47 percent of the Administration’s and 52 percent of the Congress’s – but all but one of the President’s laws were approved as provisional decrees, which are like executive orders in the United States. Executive decrees are arguably easier to pass than other bills. 

  • The coronavirus emergency aid program was one of the legislator-sponsored bills. The country’s most important COVID-19 policy to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, its legal framework originated in a bill submitted by Congressman Eduardo Barbosa. The program’s approval also demonstrated Congressional activism in the level of funding. The Federal Government initially proposed a monthly benefit of 200 reals (about $55), but the Chamber of Deputies counterproposal of 500 reals put pressure on the government to increase the benefit to 600 reals (about $110).

The legislative branch naturally embodies a broader array of social, political, and economic interests than the President and his Administration, which, although elected with support from several segments of society, has a much smaller reach.

  • Congress’s performance indicates that it is able to serve – with at least some presidents – as a co-policymaker, potentially improving the quality of policy debates, acceptability among political actors, and the likelihood of successful implementation. A public opinion poll by Datafolha suggests that four in every 10 Brazilians aged 18 years or older requested emergency coronavirus aid. Indeed, a study by Fundação Getulio Vargas estimates that the program decreased the country’s poverty rate by 23.7 percent (compared to 2019). This means that 15 million Brazilians had left poverty by last August. These results validate the Congressional activism and lay the groundwork for more in the future.

* Beatriz Rey is a CLALS Research Fellow. Parts of this article appeared on the Wilson Center website and in the Brazilian Report. 

Michel Temer’s Shrinking Presidency

By Matthew Taylor*

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Brazilian President Michel Temer. / PMDB Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

Self-inflicted troubles are forcing Brazilian President Michel Temer into difficult choices between his party and an angry public.  When he became president three months ago, his game plan was simple and bold: undertake legislative reforms that would put the government’s accounts back on track, enhance investor confidence, stimulate an economic recovery, and possibly set the stage for a center-right presidential bid (if not by Temer himself, at least by a close ally) in the 2018 elections.  Allies in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would ensure that he had the backing of Congress to push through reforms that might not bring immediate returns, but nonetheless might improve investor confidence.  Sotto voce, many politicians also assumed that the PMDB would be well placed to slow the pace of the bloodletting occasioned by the massive Lava Jato investigation and stabilize the political system.

Last week, the public’s worst suspicions of the PMDB-led government were confirmed by a two-bit scandal that claimed Government Secretary Geddel Vieira Lima, who was putting pressure – with Temer’s help – on a historical registry office to authorize construction of a Salvador building in which he had purchased an apartment.  Temer sought to repair the damage by holding an unusual press conference Sunday in which he promised to veto a proposed congressional amnesty of illegal campaign contributions.  But Temer now faces another important ethical fork in the road: how to respond to Chamber of Deputies approval of anti-corruption legislation yesterday that – while originally intended to boost efforts to clean up government – neuters the reforms and prevents judicial “abuses,” a move widely seen as an effort to intimidate judges and prosecutors.  The bill now heads to the Senate, which seems unlikely to repair the damage and indeed, may further distort the bill in an effort to undermine Temer’s ability to resurrect the reforms through selective vetoes.  The reform package had been a poster child for the prosecutors spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, and it was pushed by a petition drive that gathered more than two million signatures.  Prosecutors have threatened to resign if Temer signs the severely mangled measure into law.

Despite Temer’s initial successes, the outlook for the remainder of his term remains grim.  The bad news is going to continue, causing the Congress and Temer even more sleepless nights.  A deal expected soon reportedly will require the Odebrecht construction firm to pay a record-breaking penalty for its corrupt practices (perhaps surpassing even the US$1.6 billion Siemens paid to U.S. and European authorities in 2008), and plea bargains by nearly 80 company executives might implicate as many as 200 federal politicians.  It threatens to paralyze legislators and further weaken the PMDB’s already decimated crew, undermining Temer’s ability to coordinate with Congress.  Economic forecasts now show economic growth of less than 1 percent in 2017 and, with 26 state governments facing budget crises, politically influential governors are begging for federal help.  A much-needed pension reform promised by Temer has not yet been made public, much less begun the tortuous amendment process in Congress.  Temer increasingly is being forced to choose between helping his allies and achieving reform, or satisfying a public fed up with politics as usual and baying for accountability and a political cleanup.  It will take all of Temer’s considerable political skills and knowledge of backroom Brasília to revise his game plan for these challenging times.

December 1, 2016

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  This is adapted from this CFR blogpost.