The Legislature: A Case of Public Discontent vs. Versatility
Written by With D. Wa Hne, Jr.
Former Speaker Edwin Snowe is a respected Legislator; current Speaker Alex Tyler is the third in the power structure and occupies the seat of Richard Heneries...
The Legislature: A Case of Public Discontent Vs Versatility- Who’s To Blame?
The Liberian Legislature is usually referred to as “The Power House” of the Nation. Why? The constitution declares it the first branch of government and this is where the total representation of the people of Liberia is configured. This is where you have equals among equals.
The work of this branch of government is tedious and most often misunderstood. Its constitutional duties are to enact laws, ratify international agreements and conventions, and provide oversight responsibilities to ensure that the executive and judiciary branches conform to the laws enacted which include financial and budgetary regulations amongst others.
Importantly, its mandate is to ensure the best representation of the people through constant consultation especially where complex and people related policies are to be passed into law. However, unlike a unicameral legislature, the Liberian Legislature is divided into the Upper House and the Lower House with certain responsibilities given to each that the other cannot interfere with. For example, the House of Representatives cannot confirm presidential nominees; while the Senate cannot originate impeachment proceedings among others.
Significantly, the Senate operates on two power levels such as representing the Republic and constituencies at the same time. In other words, they must determine what supersedes constituents’ interests over national interests and national policies over constituents’ demands. Simply, they act for the nation and those they represent.
On the other hand, the senators are not the direct links to the constituencies. The elected representatives are the direct links and hence, whatever concerns the constituencies becomes the responsibility of the representatives. The Senators must work harmoniously with the representatives. When this is done, there shall be one voice on key issues especially when they come up on the floors of both plenary.
In today’s Legislature, there appears to be so much power struggle between representatives and senators of the same county. Disappointingly, there is also power struggle between senior and junior senators. Legislative caucuses are often disintegrated and cannot achieve much; all in the name of who has more control and who has more seniority. At times, the concept of upper and lower house is rejected. In these engulfing conflicts, there are deeper crises. The people they represent are discontented, disillusioned and do not understand the mandate of the Legislature.
Comparative analysis of the Tubman, Tolbert, and Doe’s Legislatures present a different scenario. The Legislature was comprised of older statesmen and elders who took pleasure in dignity, prestige, and cohesiveness. They seemed not to have bothered about increases in their salaries and the non attractiveness of benefits. A senator made US$4,000 annually as well as a representative. In the eyes of the public, the current Legislature is focused on increments and more benefits. Others would argue that the nature of politics in those days were different. There was an overly powerful executive. But there is one important note and that is, they had their own style of approach which dignified both the president and the legislators.
This is not to suggest that the 51st Legislature is not dignified. Yes indeed they are. The differences can be defined as the new sophistication, youthful exuberance, and the multi-party politics which have their own merits and demerits. There exists in the midst of the current legislature idiosyncratic personalities, utopians, activists, and uncompromising party loyalists, as well as back seaters who sometimes make a day’s session almost ungovernable. This is common in every legislature even the United States Congress.
Unfortunately, the Liberian Legislature is not understood by the public and they are not doing much to bring legislative education to the people. The purpose of the Press Bureau is not to only send out releases or accommodate journalists and arrange press interviews and conferences, but to also design community educative programmes. The leaders of both Houses should look into that.
There is the culture of public condemnation of the Legislature even when the Executive is in error. Lawmakers are blamed for lack of infrastructural development. When road conditions are deplorable, lawmakers are blamed. When there is no water, constituents blamed the lawmakers. When there are no job opportunities, they are held responsible. When presidential submissions are rejected based on constitutional problems or procedural errors, the public blame the legislature. In other words, they are grossly inefficient or must perform the duties of the Executive.
But all these condemnations against them could be imaginary since the public do not know that lawmakers have empowered the executive to carry out those responsibilities. In this case, what should be the Speaker’s responsibility or the President Protempore’s? Because of these misunderstanding, legislators have become unpopular with their constituencies and as such, they have run to the ruling party for fear of being dis-elected.
The Congress of the United States of America wins the admiration of the people although, Congressional Door Keepers maintained that the Congress comprised of many thoughts and arguments that deserved the dust pin and so is the Nigerian National Assembly where chairs were, in the past, thrown against each other and gowns torn in fights; no wonder President Banbagida ensured that assembly seats were screwed to the grounds to avoid the flying of chairs. But this has not stopped the over development of emotions. In the Liberian case, it is not the flying of chairs or fight, but a new way to be heard or the demonstration of attitudes that make a session ungovernable.
The Liberian Legislature is no different from the world trend. Unfortunately, the public believes that the lawmakers have failed them. They believe that instead of projecting public interest, they are busy increasing their allowances. Presumptions of said increases amount to more than US$8, 000 per month and gasoline more than 500 gallons per month while salaries rise to more than 17,000LD. The increases have got members of the 51st Legislature in trouble. The Capitol Building has become a California Gold Rush. There are more contenders for the legislature more than what Legislative Elections have had. Moreover, the Civil Service Commission seems to be disturbed that Legislators categorized their staff as personal staff although paid by government. According to a staffer who prefers not to be named, they are given no respect and a Legislator can wake in the morning and decide to dismiss them without intervention by civil service.
To every given condition, there is the positive. This Legislature is diversified and treads on the new innovation and practice of democracy. They are versatile, knowledgeable and mostly youthful. They show their Legislative strength and present the lines of demarcation between the Executive and Legislature. The Public hail them as not being like their predecessors who were rubber stamped. But in most cases, when they reject a bill or nomination from the presidency, the people hailed them but when they turned against their own decisions, the people are not informed as regarding the reasons. These create credibility problems and accusations of compromises. Of course, the Legislature is so powerful that it owes no one explanation.
Former Speaker Edwin Snowe is a respected Legislator; current Speaker Alex Tyler is the third in the power structure and occupies the seat of Richard Heneries; Isaac Nyenabo is a constitutionalist and one regarded to understand the working of the Legislature more than anyone else and also a former President Protempore of the Liberian Senate; Abel Massalay is considered a teacher on the floor and a strong floor fighter and foreign policy expert; John Ballout is known for his eloquence.
There are great other voices in the Legislature to include Senator Mobuto Nyenpan, the man said to speak the English language as Sir Winston Churchill; there is the outspoken and knowledgeable Jewel Howard Taylor; the outspoken Dr. Bhafol Chambers; and the man known to understand the old order with the greatest experience in the person of Honorable Cletus Wotorson, who sits in the seat of Frank Tolbert of the Liberian Senate; and scoresof others who cannot be named in line of prominence for space. My apologies Honorables.
With these prominent Legislators, fundamental differences are expected in the National Legislature as well as the abilities to meet the expectations of Liberians. Unfortunately the resources of the nation are still determined by a few. Concession agreements do not have the participation of the counties; the attraction of investors into the country remains the sole responsibility of central government; Revenue allocation has not yet been by law. These and others have drawn the versatility of the Legislature to public discontent. Who’s to blame? What legacy will the 51 Legislature leave behind?