The Legislature

Brazil Table of Contents

Brazil's national legislature is composed of the 513-member Chamber of Deputies and the eighty-one-member Senate. Congress has a basic four-year term, but senators serve for eight years. It meets from March through June, and from August through December. The states have unicameral legislatures elected simultaneously with Congress. The municipalities have city councils with four-year terms; municipal elections take place two years after state and national elections. Since 1930 Congress has been closed five times under authoritarian intervention: November 1930 to December 1933; November 1937 to February 1946; November 1966; December 1968 to October 1969; and for fifteen days in April 1977.

The 1988 constitution restored most of the powers and prerogatives that Congress had lost during the military regime. Congress enjoys administrative and fiscal autonomy, as well as full power over the budget. Under certain circumstances, it may issue legislative decrees not subject to presidential veto. An absolute majority secret vote in Congress is required to override a presidential veto. Congress also has a very important role in setting national, especially economic, policies. For example, it must approve all international agreements, including renegotiation of the foreign debt.

Legislators enjoy almost total parliamentary immunity, even for capital crimes, such as homicide. Even if the respective chamber lifts the legislator's immunity by an absolute majority secret vote, the legislator retains the privilege of being tried by the STF. In December 1994, nearly 100 lawsuits (courts and prosecutors) sought to lift the immunity of deputies and senators. However, the legislative esprit de corps is so strong that only rarely does a case come to the floor for a vote.

Since 1950 federal and state legislators have been elected at regular four-year intervals. Senators must be at least thirty-five years old. Each state has three seats, and one or two seats are elected alternately every four years to eight-year terms. Election is by simple majority. Since 1946 deputies have had four-year terms and must be at least twenty-one years old. The 1946 constitution granted states with small populations a minimum delegation of seven deputies; larger states counted one additional deputy for every 150,000 inhabitants up to 3 million, and after that one for every 250,000. The small states imposed this system to reverse the dominance of the two largest states (São Paulo and Minas Gerais) in the Chamber of Deputies during the Old Republic (1889-1930).

In 1970, at the height of the military oppression, the balance was tipped in favor of the larger, more developed, urbanized states. State delegations were calculated based on the size of the electorate, rather than on population. The minimum delegation was reduced to three, and most of the states in rural Brazil had their contingents cut in half. These changes reduced the Chamber of Deputies to 310 deputies. Ironically, this system helped the Brazilian Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro--MDB) elect a 44 percent minority in 1974; thus, in 1978 the military returned to calculations based on population. The 1988 constitution gave Brazil's largest state, São Paulo, seventy deputies, instead of the 115 it should have to be proportionate to its population.

Election of federal and state deputies and city council members is by proportional representation. Brazil uses one of the least-used variants of proportional representation, the open-list system (the d'Hondt method--see Glossary). Thus, there is virtually no conflict or competition among parties in the elections. The conflict is concentrated within each party or coalition list, and most deputies use their own resources (which may be considerable, up to US$5 million for a federal deputy) for campaigning. Therefore, they owe no loyalty to their party, and change labels frequently after their election (see table 18, Appendix). This produces very weak parties and low cohesion in Congress. The Workers' Party is an exception to this rule.

Those holding office (elective or appointive) in the executive branch who desire to become candidates for elective office must resign six months before the election. This requirement precludes a minister, governor, mayor, or state enterprise director from using the powers and resources of the office to favor his or her election.

The Senate and Chamber of Deputies have legislative initiative. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies have six and sixteen standing committees, respectively, plus a joint budget committee. The 1988 constitution gives the committees the power to approve or kill legislation.

To override a committee decision and bring the bill to the floor of the appropriate house requires a petition signed by a certain number of members. Once one house passes a bill, the other deliberates on it. If a different version of the bill is passed, it returns to the original house for a final vote on the differences. The internal rules of each house allow members and party leaders certain prerogatives of obstruction.

Party leaders distribute party quotas on committees proportionate to the party's size. Committee presidencies are apportioned among the parties on an annual rotational basis; thus, there are no longstanding powerful committee chairs, as in the United States Congress. There are no subcommittees, and legislative committees rarely conduct public hearings.

When a matter is very serious, at least one-third of the respective house or the full Congress may petition to initiate a CPI (Congressional Investigating Committee). The CPIs have full subpoena and investigative powers, such as the disclosure of bank, income tax, telephone, credit card, and other records. A CPI produced the evidence used to impeach President Collor in 1992 and uncovered the Budgetgate scandal of 1993-94.

Normally, the Chamber of Deputies has around 50 percent turnover at each election. In 1990 this figure rose to nearly 60 percent; in 1994 it returned to 54 percent. In years when two-thirds of the Senate stands for election and gubernatorial seats are being contested, turnover can also be high in the upper house (63 percent in 1994).

Senators tend to be older and have more established political careers. Most have served as federal deputies, and many have been governors. Deputies usually tend to have served in city councils, state assemblies, and as state cabinet secretaries. In the first half of the 1990s, the proportion of deputies elected with no prior political experience increased. In 1995 the largest contingents in the Chamber of Deputies by occupation were businessmen, 32 percent; lawyers, 20 percent; medical doctors, 11 percent; engineers, 7 percent; labor leaders, 6 percent; teachers, 5 percent; economists, 5 percent; public servants, 3 percent; journalists, 3 percent; and administrators, 2 percent.

Each house elects its presiding officers (one president, two vice presidents, four administrative secretaries, and four alternates) for two-year terms. The 1987-88 ANC (National Constituent Assembly) prohibited these legislative officers from being immediately reelected, a prohibition initially imposed by the military to break up "internal oligarchies." Traditionally, the largest party in each house has the prerogative of electing the president, but the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) was in such disarray in 1993 and 1995 that the Liberal Front Party (Partido da Frente Liberal--PFL), the second largest party, was able to build a coalition that elected the Chamber of Deputies president. By negotiation the PMDB returned to the Chamber presidency for the 1997-98 term, and the PFL won the Senate presidency for the first time since 1985. The presiding officers comprise an all-powerful Executive Board, which makes nearly all important political, administrative, procedural, and agenda-setting decisions. The Senate president is also the president of the Congress and presides over joint sessions.

During the 1987-88 ANC, an informal group called the College of Party Leaders developed. It became an important leadership group and was the forum for decisive bargaining on crucial articles. This group has gradually acquired more power (especially agenda-setting) to the detriment of the formally elected officers, especially in the Chamber of Deputies.

The political role of Congress began to increase even before the demise of the military regime. In 1979 President Figueiredo took office without the extraordinary powers of the Fifth Institutional Act. In the 1982 elections, the government party lost its absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies (see table 19, Appendix), and in 1983 the Chamber of Deputies defeated Figueiredo's initial decree laws, including one on social security.

Maximum political power accrued to Congress in 1985, when the vice president-elect, José Sarney (PMDB-Maranhão), assumed the presidency under less than auspicious circumstances. From March 1985 through February 1986, Chamber of Deputies President Ulysses Guimarães (PMDB-São Paulo) and PMDB Senate floor leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PMDB-São Paulo) more or less ruled with Sarney as informal "prime ministers." Sarney, however, recovered considerable presidential powers as a result of his cruzado (for value of the cruzado--see Glossary) economic stabilization plan, which began on March 1, 1986. Congress again assumed maximum power in 1992, when Brazil became the first nation in the world to constitutionally impeach a sitting, directly elected president.

The National Accounts Court (Tribunal de Contas da União--TCU) is the external control and oversight arm of Congress. The TCU conducts inspections, usually following newspaper exposés or requests from members of Congress, and audits the executive branch's annual accounts. Until the 1988 constitution, the president, with Senate approval, appointed members to the TCU. Retiring or defeated members of Congress or friends of the president in need of a sinecure usually filled the positions. With rare exceptions, TCU members have represented political factions and groups, and their main role is to protect allies who have been charged with corruption.

Under the 1988 constitution, recruitment criteria for the TCU became more specific. The president, with Senate approval, appoints three of the nine members. Two of the presidential appointees must be auditors or federal prosecutors from the TCU and must be chosen from a three-name list prepared by the TCU. Congress chooses the remaining six members. Each state has a State Accounts Court (Tribunal de Contas dos Estados--TCE), but only the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have a Municipal Accounts Court (Tribunal de Contas Municipais--TCM). The accounts of all other municipalities are reviewed by their respective TCE.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress