Holding the President to Ransom By May Agbamuche-Mbu
Last year President Obama of the United States endured a series of standoffs in Congress. There was the fiscal cliff, then the debt ceiling cliff and finally (for now!) the spending cut cliff. It was the same battle every time.
President Obama was steadfast and refused to negotiate with Congress over a ‘trade-by- barter’ deal regarding the raising of the debt ceiling. The US Government needed to raise its debt ceiling to keep government running.
The Tea party, the ultra right wing faction of the Republican party, who had a majority in the House of Representatives, tried to force Obama to make sweeping changes to the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. It was President Obama’s defining legislation and the House Republicans were determined to eviscerate it in return for endorsing a rise in the debt ceiling. Obama was literally held to ransom. At the end of the day the Republicans fell apart (and, divisively, amongst themselves) and equally failed in the court of public opinion. It was truly a very unwholesome attempt at blackmail.
This week I saw a rather interesting headline that said ‘Obama vows to bypass Congress to create jobs’. This brings one to question just how much a president can achieve when Congress is so entrenched and belligerent.
Here in Nigeria we are faced with a wind of change politically and it is already blowing in the National Assembly. A few days ago, APC instructed its 172 members in the House of Representatives to block all proposals and bills initiated by the executive arm of government under President Goodluck Jonathan until the rule of law is restored in Rivers State in particular and Nigeria in general. This includes the 2014 budget and confirmation of all nominees to military and civilian positions of public office.
Further, with tensions high from members cross carpeting or migrating from PDP to APC, it was not surprising that there were clashes between Senators over the 2014 budget with members disagreeing along party lines and some purposely delaying the passage of the Bill.
In other climes, legislatures have adopted all sorts of ingenious means to frustrate legislative proposals. The most famous example is a filibuster where parliamentary debates are extended unduly, allowing one or more members to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a proposal. I wonder what means the opposition party in the National Assembly proposes to adopt in carrying out their threat to frustrate the passage of bills from the government. In particular, the 2014 Appropriation Act otherwise known as the Budget. Interestingly, the standing orders of the Senate and the House of Representatives appears to give the presiding officers considerable discretion on how long each member may speak or contribute to the debate when appropriation bills are being considered. The filibuster will not work here because the Senate President or the Speaker would easily cut off further contributions of any member who exceeds their allotted time.
What other way can they stop or frustrate the passage of the Appropriation Bill other than making noise in the pages of our newspapers? They may choose to boycott proceedings of the Senate or the House in the hope that, if there is no quorum, proceedings will not go on. That gambit will fail because the parties seem evenly matched in spite of the cross overs.
Another way might be to disrupt proceedings by a deliberately provocative intervention, like that recently carried out by the minority leader in the House of Representatives.
How far can the President’s constitutionally recognised executive powers enable him to govern without the co-operation of the National Assembly? This is the same question that President Obama’s State of the Union address raised.
Just as President Obama is determined to pursue his social and economic reforms in the United States in spite of congressional resistance, so too must our President Goodluck Jonathan assess the possibility of continuing with his transformation and economic programme even if the opposition threat to block bills in National Assembly proves to be real.
Law 101 this week is on mediation. A number of senior lawyers are rather sceptical about the efficacy of the mediation process in the speedy dispensation of justice. In the first place, the consent of both parties is required for any dispute to go to mediation, rather than the judicial process. It is obvious that a party with a rather shaky case will be in no hurry for matters to reach a conclusion and therefore will rather remain in the normal judicial process, characterized by long delays and adjournments.
Such a party will not consent to mediation and of course, it is possible that the scepticism of these senior lawyers is informed by their inability to easily accept change. A lifetime in the courtrooms might make it difficult for some of them to readily see the benefits of round table discussions.
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