Raising the floor

In recent days, several members of Parliament have written in these pages about measures to increase the effectiveness of Parliament. Several steps can be taken to enable Parliament work better as the premier institution to hold government accountable for its proposals and actions.

Parliamentary committees provide a forum to MPs to examine bills and budget proposals. Specialised financial committees also look at audit reports of ministries and PSUs. The committees, however, are handicapped by the lack of expert researchers working for them. Parliament can correct this by having subject experts for each committee, and supplementing this expertise with outside experts whenever needed. The British Parliament, for instance, has research staff attached to its committees.

The issue of asymmetric information between the government and MPs becomes even more stark when we look at the facilities provided to individual MPs. They do not have any office space in Delhi, and usually work out of home (which varies from a bungalow to a hostel room). They do not have any individual research staff — though the recent increase in allowances may enable them to appoint one junior level researcher. Contrast this with the investments made by mature democracies. The United States and the United Kingdom provide office space next to the legislature building. Each US Senator has 15 to 20 researchers supporting her work, while the figure is three to five staff for a British MP. In addition, both these countries have large research staff attached to their legislative libraries who provide detailed notes on bills, current issues and any queries raised by members. The US Congressional Research Service has about 700 staff, and the corresponding number in the UK is about 100 staff.

Other issues often raised include the limited debate on bills, the limited number of days that Parliament meets, as well as the lack of freedom for MPs to vote their conscience as important matters. These three issues are interconnected when it comes to the incentive structure for MPs to perform their parliamentary functions. Voters do not know about the work of their representatives in Parliament, and rarely use that as a performance metric when MPs come for re-election. Therefore, there is no direct incentive to work hard on understanding issues and debating them in Parliament. In any case, the whip and the anti-defection law are valid reasons for an MP to justify why she did not act in a particular way. Four moves can change the system dramatically.

First, the rules can be amended to require that all final votes on bills or debates be recorded. That is, these should not be decided by a voice vote but should have each MP press the voting button. Such a step will lead to a voting record for each MP, which will be available to the electorate. Thus, the voters will see how the MP voted (and whether the MP voted). This step will also prevent the passage of bills during a commotion in the House, as has been seen several times in recent years.

Second, Parliament should have a pre-announced annual calendar of sittings. Such a measure will help MPs and other stakeholders plan their schedules. It will also make it difficult for the government to shorten sessions when it finds it inconvenient to face tough questions in Parliament. This addresses the issue that Parliament meets for too few days every year.

Another idea is that a significant minority should have the power to insist on a discussion or referral of an issue to a parliamentary committee. Such a procedure would have prevented the stalemate in the winter session last year over the formation of a joint parliamentary committee to look into the 2G spectrum allocation. Indeed, this formula could be used when some MPs want to convene a session. Currently, only the government can decide when Parliament meets, with the only stipulation that it should meet at least once in six months. Given that government accountability is ensured through Parliament, it is important that it not have complete freedom to avoid holdin-g sessions or having only very short sessions.

Finally, it is important to take stock of the anti-defection law, and the proposal that the provisions be limited to trust votes and money bills. This step will allow MPs to represent the interests of their voters and vote according to their conscience on most issues. At the same time, it will preserve the objective of having stable governments as envisaged by the anti-defection legislation.