Sun | Sep 15, 2019

Martin Henry | As bad as Jamaica's Parliament is ...

Published:Sunday | January 20, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Poorly paid they may be, but no public servant in Jamaica is ever likely to go without their little monthly pay cheque. As is the case in the United States right now with a partial shutdown of the federal government which started on December 22 last year and is now entering its fifth week.

The shutdown is an extreme product of the US system of government which so many hanker after as superior and a kind of panacea to the perceived democratic ills of other systems like the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.

With the rigid separation of powers in the US constitution, the Congress has the sole 'power of the purse' and the responsibility for approving the financing of government expenditure. Appropriation bills, like all other bills, must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats now control the House and Republicans the Senate.

When a bill has been passed by both Houses, it goes to the president for ratification. If the president signs the bill, it becomes become law. If the president vetoes a bill, it goes back to Congress, where the veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both Houses, which is rare.

Government shutdowns, like the current record-breaking one, tend to occur when the president and one or both of the chambers of Congress are unable to resolve disagreements over budget allocations before the existing budget cycle ends. There have been several such shutdowns. The budget cycle for many departments of government, not all, ended at midnight on December 21.

One of the clearest explanations I have come across is from an online outfit called ThoughtCo, which is dedicated, like myself, to lifelong learning: "The US constitution requires that all expenditure of federal funds be authorised by Congress with the approval of the president of the United States. The US federal government and the federal budget process operate on a fiscal year cycle running from October 1 to midnight September 30. If Congress fails to pass all of the spending bills comprising the annual federal budget or 'continuing resolutions' extending spending beyond the end of the fiscal year; or if the president fails to sign or vetoes any of the individual spending bills, certain non-essential functions of the government may be forced to cease because of a lack of congressionally authorised funding. The result is a government shutdown."

The current government shutdown, and the third of the Donald Trump presidency, "began on December 22, 2019, when Congress and the White House failed to agree on the inclusion of US$5.7 billion in the annual spending bill as requested by President Trump for the construction of an additional 234 miles of fencing to be added to the existing security barrier along the US border with Mexico." The Wall.

US media have been busy trying to tot up the cost and impact of this longest shutdown in US history. And last Thursday, we had here a newspaper editorial asking, "How will the US Government shutdown affect Jamaica?" Speculation has run from remittances to tourism and visa services and the need for additional social support here from cuts in remittances.

But in the bitterest of ironies, Miss Nancy won't fly. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was leading her troops in a holdout against Trump's wall, the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces denied her military transport for her planned trip to Brussels, Afghanistan and Egypt, the bombshell coming just one hour before flight time last Thursday. The president cited the government shutdown as reason and suggested the speaker of the House fly commercial. The day before Pelosi had advised Mr Trump to postpone his upcoming State of the Union address, considering the political deadlock.

This kind of deadlock won't happen in Jamaica. It is true that the Parliament votes the annual Budget. But the head of government, the prime minister, and the ministers of the Cabinet are drawn from the legislature.

Our system has attracted the criticisms of prime ministerial dictatorship, the domination of the legislature by the executive, and the rubber-stamping of Budgets by the Parliament. But it avoids US-style gridlock and government shutdown. No system of government is perfect.

On Tuesday, the British Parliament, the home of Westminster, delivered a crushing defeat to the government's Brexit plan with 432 votes against and 202 in support. Which meant that government MPs also voted against the plan of the government. Something which rarely if ever happens here.

Moments after the speaker of the House announced the results, the prime minister declared that it was only right to test whether her government still had the support of the Parliament to carry on. An extreme rarity in our own version of Westminster.

On Wednesday, the very next day, the no-confidence motion was put to the vote. The members from the majority Conservative Party rallied back around the prime minister and the motion was defeated, albeit by a narrow margin of 325 to 306 votes.

In our own Westminster Constitution, the governor general is obliged to revoke the appointment of a prime minister if the House of Representatives delivers a majority vote saying so. But the prime minister has the option of asking the GG, who is obliged to consult with him within three days of the vote, to dissolve Parliament instead of revoking his appointment. This would trigger fresh elections. A fine and fair balance of power!

A no-confidence motion has its best chance of success in a Legislature with only a slim majority. The motion succeeded in Guyana when government backbencher Charrandas Persaud voted in support of the no-confidence motion made by the leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo, providing the 33 votes needed to ensure the success of the motion by the slimmest of majority in the 65-member National Assembly.

The validity of the vote has been challenged in the courts and the chief justice has declared her intention to rule on the matter by the end of this month. But there you have it messy democracy at work in one variant of many.

We must recall also that the exit of the UK from the European Union is the result of a referendum, a direct appeal to the people on a point of policy or law, which Westminster and some other variants allow but I am not sure the American constitutional arrangement does. The UK is out hard or soft come March 29.

There's a lot going around to exercise constitutional lawyers and political theorists on best arrangements for democratic governance which seems a little battered right now by events in the great citadels of democracy.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and