The Legislative Branch

Chile Table of Contents

Inaugurated on July 4, 1811, the National Congress became one of the strongest legislative bodies in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. The 1925 constitution reaffirmed the commitment to a bicameral system made up of a 150-member Chamber of Deputies and a fifty-member Senate. However, that charter diminished congressional prerogatives by barring members of Congress from occupying ministerial posts, restricting the legislature's power over budget laws, and giving the president considerable legislative powers, including the right to designate particular legislation as "urgent." Nevertheless, Congress remained a critical arena for the formulation of national policy, serving as the most important institution for cross-party bargaining and consensus building in Chile's fragmented political system. Congress produced fundamental legislation, such as laws establishing social security (1924), the Labor Code (1931), the minimum wage (1943), Corfo (1939), restrictions on the PCCh (1948), and agrarian reform (1967). Congress also had an important means of oversight in its authority to accuse ministers of wrongdoing.

Under the 1980 constitution, Chile retains a bicameral legislature composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, both of which play a role in the legislative process. However, the 1980 charter reduced the Chamber of Deputies to 120 members, two for each of sixty congressional districts. All deputies serve for four years on the same quadrennial cycle. Upon taking office, all deputies must be citizens possessing the right to vote. They must be at least twenty-one years old, must have completed secondary education, and must have lived in the district they represent for at least two years. The 1980 constitution also reduced the Senate, to thirty-eight members, who serve eight-year terms, with half of the body coming up for election every four years. Senators must be citizens with the right to vote, must be at least forty years old, must have completed secondary school, and must have lived in the region they represent for at least three years. High-level government officials, including ministers, judges, and the five members of the Central Bank Council, are barred from being candidates for deputy or senator until a year after they leave their posts. Leaders of community groups or other associations also are not permitted to become candidates unless they give up their posts.

In addition to the elected senators, the Senate has nine designated senators (eight since the death of one in 1991), all of whom serve eight-year terms. The Supreme Court names two from the ranks of former members of the court and one who has served as comptroller general. Cosena designates four senators, each a former commander of each of the armed services who held that post for at least two years. Finally, the president of the republic designates two senators, one who has been a university president and the other a government minister (Article 45). All former presidents who remain in office for at least six years of the eight-year term are automatically senators for life. Pinochet, the only former president alive when the current Senate was installed in March 1990, opted instead to remain commander in chief of the army, a post that is constitutionally excluded from a senatorial position. The appointed senators played a somewhat surprising role in the Aylwin government by not always acting in unity with the rightist opposition, as the government feared they would. Indeed, these senators occasionally served as bridges between the government and the armed forces, helping to diffuse tensions and avert misunderstandings.

The Chamber of Deputies carries out its duties by means of thirteen permanent commissions, each one of which is composed of thirteen deputies. The Senate has eighteen commissions, each with five members. Most of the commissions correspond to a ministry responsible for a similar substantive area. Mixed commissions, composed of members from both houses, are charged with resolving discrepancies between the houses on particular pieces of legislation.

The constitution establishes a hierarchy of laws that must be approved by majorities of various sizes. Ordinary laws are approved by a simple majority of the members present in both chambers. Laws requiring a qualified quorum must be approved by an absolute majority of all legislators. An example would be a law redefining the boundaries of regions or provinces. Organic constitutional laws, designed to complement the constitution on key matters, require approval by four-sevenths of all members to be modified, repealed, or enacted into law. Finally, laws interpreting the constitution require the approval of three- fifths of all legislators for enactment.

Constitutional amendments can be initiated by the president, ten deputies, or five senators, and they require the concurrence of three-fifths of all legislators and the signature of the president to be approved. Key provisions dealing with such matters as rights and obligations, the Constitutional Tribunal, the armed forces, and Cosena require the assent of two-thirds of the members of each chamber and approval by the president. If the president rejects a constitutional reform measure that is subsequently reaffirmed by Congress by at least a three-fifths vote, he or she can take the matter to the voters in a plebiscite.

Congress has the exclusive right to approve or reject international treaties presented to it by the president before ratification, following the same procedure used in approving an ordinary law. Although the president, with the consent of Cosena, can institute a state of siege, Congress, within a period of ten days, can approve or reject the state of siege by a majority vote of its members.

In case the office of the president is left vacant and there are fewer than two years left in the presidential term, Congress can select a presidential successor through a majority vote of its members. Should the vacancy occur with more than two years left in the presidential term, a new presidential election would be called. The Chamber of Deputies can also initiate a constitutional accusation by majority vote against the president, ministers, judges, the comptroller general, admirals, generals, intendants of regions, and governors of provinces for violations of the law, constitutional dispositions, or abuse of power. The Senate, in turn, acts as a jury and finds the accused either innocent or guilty as charged. If the president of the republic is accused, the conviction depends on a two-thirds majority in Senate. The Senate is also required to give the president permission to leave the country for a period of more than thirty days or for any amount of time during the last ninety days of the presidential term. Further, the Senate can declare the physical or mental incapacity of the president or president-elect, once the Constitutional Tribunal has pronounced itself on the matter.

The original constitutional provisions of 1980 virtually barred the Senate from exercising oversight of the executive branch or expressing opinions on the conduct of government. These provisions were removed from the constitution in the 1989 amendments. The amendments also eliminate the president's power to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies. The constitution of 1980, however, severely limits the role of Congress in legislative matters relative to earlier legislatures in Chilean history. Article 62 states that "the President of the Republic holds the exclusive initiative for proposals of law related to changes of the political or administrative division of the country, or to the financial or budgetary administration of the State." Article 64 of the constitution also restricts the budgetary prerogatives of the legislative branch.

In several areas, the president is given sole authority to introduce bills. These include measures involving spending, changes in the duties and characteristics of public-sector administrative entities, modifications to the political-administrative configuration of the state, and initiatives related to collective bargaining. The president can also call the legislature into extraordinary session, at which time the legislature can only consider legislative and treaty proposals introduced by the president. The president may grant certain initiatives priority status, requiring that Congress act within three, ten, or thirty days, depending on the degree of urgency specified. In this sense, the president has the exclusive power to set the legislative agenda and, therefore, the political agenda. In a further restraint on legislators, the 1980 constitution permits the Constitutional Tribunal to remove a senator or deputy from office if he or she "permits the voting of a motion that is declared openly contrary to the political constitution of the State by the Constitutional Tribunal" (Article 57).

Finally, Congress is limited in its ability to act as a counterforce against the president's power in matters dealing with the constitutional rights of citizens. Although the president needs the approval of the majority of Congress to establish states of siege, the president may declare a state of assembly, emergency, or catastrophe solely with the approval of Cosena (Article 40).

Important legislative initiatives approved during the Aylwin government have included, in the political sphere, constitutional changes leading to the creation of democratic local governments; laws reforming the administration of justice, including the treatment of political prisoners and terrorism; and the creation, in 1990, of a cabinet-level agency, Sernam, to pay special attention to women's issues. In the sociocultural area, changes included a revision to the National Education Law (Estatuto Docente) to "dignify" the teaching profession and establish a "teaching career"; a reformulation of student loan programs; and measures designed to simplify the reporting of petty crimes and robbery and increase the powers of the police in dealing with such crimes. Congress also approved measures to regulate collective bargaining and recognize labor organizations. In the economic sphere, the most important legislation enacted into law included the Industrial Patents Law, designed to ease Chile's entrance into international markets; the lowering of tariff barriers; and the creation of a price-stabilization fund for petroleum. In the international sphere, Congress approved various treaties of economic cooperation (including one with the European Economic Community) and ratified the findings of the Bryan Commission, a joint commission with the United States that settled the case of the 1977 assassination of Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington, which had constituted a long-time source of conflict between Chile and the United States.

During the Aylwin administration, relations between the executive and Congress were conducted through an informal network of bilateral commissions composed of ministers and their top advisers and senators and deputies of the governing coalition working in the same policy area. However, these meetings proved less important than the weekly gatherings presided over by the minister of interior with party leaders of the CPD coalition, leaders of the CPD parties in the legislature, and the secretary generals of the presidency and the government. At these weekly meetings, the legislative agenda was discussed and decided upon. This pattern of decision making signified, in practice, that individual members of Congress and the legislature itself had assumed a secondary and pro forma role, following the instructions of legislative leaders in their close negotiations with government and party leaders. Nor did congressional committees or members of Congress have enough staff and expertise to deal with experts from the executive branch on complex legislative matters. Individual legislators could articulate concerns and provide important feedback, but early in the postauthoritarian period the legislature appeared to be playing a decidedly secondary role.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress