‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington’

Last semester provided me with a unique opportunity to attend a seminar on the US Congress taught by professor Gregory Koger. The 8 am start for classes motivated me to get up earlier twice a week, which turned out to be worth the effort. As much as I like reading books, it is always better listening to the experts and interacting with students. That also brought me to my interest in ‘filibustering’, probably one of the most shocking US Senate procedures. It is not easy to imagine that one Member of the European Parliament (EP) would have the possibility to (threaten to) paralyse procedures by not leaving the floor and talking as long as he/she can stand on his/her feet.

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Shortly after ‘touch down’ at the Regan Airport in DC (still in Miami outfit)

As much as I find this kind of tactic ‘disturbing’ I also came to appreciate its ‘beauty’ when watching movie Mr Smith Goes To Washington. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it very much.

I mention the movie because to some extent it describes my feelings when I landed in DC last week. There are certainly many differences, unlike Mr Smith I am not a Member of US Congress, but as in the case of Mr Smith, it was the first time I visited the US capital, which impressed me very much. It also helped me to understand why many people say that Miami is a very nice city which is very close to the United States…

It was very symbolic that my visit started in an outpost of my ‘home land’. Colleagues in the EP Liaison Office in DC were very helpful in providing useful contacts and interesting ideas linked directly to my research. I had a chance to meet a number of very interesting people in the US Congress coming from both political camps, committee staff, legislative staff of members and colleagues from the Office of the Legislative Counsel and Congressional Research Service. Professor Dinan at the George Mason University also gave me an opportunity to present my views as regards Parliament’s role in trade law negotiations to his students.

 

The whole trip provided me with a useful insight into what happens in the US before a bill is introduced by a Member of Congress.

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With Sandy Strokoff and mark Synnes, The House legislative counsels

Being heavily influenced by the traditional European parliamentary system, I was obsessed by the role the executive plays in the initiation of legislative process: unlike in the US, in all EU Member States the right of legislative initiative is shared among Members of parliament and the executive power (of course, in some cases other actors play role too, e.g. regional parliaments/governments). According to data covering individual Member States, that I managed to gather thanks to my wonderful DLA colleagues, on average 86% of legislative proposals introduced by the executive become law. As regards Members of (national) parliaments this figure is much lower, at around 17%. Looking at those numbers, and the EU’s own system where Members of EP don’t have the right of legislative initiative at all, I was very suspicious about the US system and thought that the right of Members of Congress to introduce bills must surely be only a formal right and that it would be the executive, with all its experts, actually running the show. I was simply not ready to accept  that ‘the role of Congress is to legislate and the role of executive is to implement laws designed by the US legislator’, as stressed by Sandy.

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Two ‘magic’ cards that allowed me to screen plenary procedures in both chambers.

The people I met admitted that there are contacts with the executive (the White House, state departments) prior to and throughout the legislative process, in particular where the congressional actors come from the party of the President. It is also natural that Congress listens to the President and, in the interest of the adoption of a bill, tries to accommodate his remarks and thus avoid veto. Still, the executive is only one of many stakeholders who play role in the process leading to the adoption of an act.

 

The role of legislative power in US is nevertheless far from what we witness in EU as regards legislative agenda setting and I am not suggesting that because something works in US we need to adapt our way of introducing legislative proposals, which has own history and ‘raison d’etre’. If anybody looks at the activities of decisive EP representatives over the last decade, there wouldn’t be much activity demanding the full right of legislative initiative for EP. Instead, EP uses other tools to influence EU agenda setting. For example, the Spitzenkandidat process applied for the first time prior to the 2014 EP elections produced a number of priorities that were included in the Juncker Commission agenda. President Schulz has also used key speeches to criticise ‘summitisation‘, by which one EU institution dominates agenda setting and attempts to exclude EP from the decision-making process or to put it in a position of a ‘yes man’. The EP Secretary General Welle often refers to the ‘unused potential of the Lisbon Treaty’ when he outlines ideas about the role EP should play in the legislative cycle. None of the relevant players refers particularly to a need to empower EP or its members or political groups with the right of legislative initiative. Not at all a criticism, just a statement of fact.

At the same time, the mechanisms provided by the Treaties, even those which are essentially ‘unused’, might soon be exhausted. Article 225 TFEU which enables the EP to request the Commission to submit any appropriate proposal doesn’t seem sufficient. Although the Commission needs to follow up such requests with a justified response and tends to do so in a polite and content rich language, it is worth considering that of 58 procedures (some of them are still pending) the Commission only admitted in a very few cases (2) that the idea proposed by the majority of EP component members is worth developing in new legislative proposals. I am not trying to say that everything suggested by EP has to be immediately materialised into new legislation. At the same time, we are not talking about parliamentary questions or other types of initiatives launched by individual Members but about a report that needs the support of decisive EP parties to get adopted. It seems to me therefore that legislative ideas crafted by EP would require a different type of attention.

Rather than using this blog to point the finger at other EU institutions, or uncritically admire another legislative system, the point I would like to raise is that EP provides a natural place where ideas coming from all EU corners, be it from constituents or interest groups or other stakeholders, can emerge in proposals that are debated with other actors and eventually crafted into EU law. As shown above, such a process is not so different from the constitutional traditions of the EU Member States and can complement the current EU mechanism leading to a set-up in which legislative initiatives are started either in the legislative or executive branch. There is no reason to believe that EP with all its input provided currently in the amending process would not be able to become a fully fledged legislature and contribute to the EU agenda setting through its own legislative proposals.

The debate on this subject is rather complex and goes beyond what is possible to outline in a blog. The above ideas will be further elaborated in a more detailed paper at the end of my fellowship.

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The Capitol Dome in background

If I managed to keep your attention until this point, I would finish with a very simple idea that caught my attention when watching a short film about the Congress, broadcast in the Capitol visitors center theater. The Capitol Dome was in a construction process during the civil war (1861-1865) and there were attempts to stop the construction given the ongoing war. ‘If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.’ was the reaction of the US president A. Lincoln. The idea is worth considering in the Union on the other side of Atlantic in these difficult times. Although we are not in a civil war in Eu, we should not allow that the ongoing issues paralyse us to such an extent that we are not be able to pursue our long term vision, be it the one at EU level or of our respective EU institution or a Member State or simply at the level of our family.

 

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Astonishing Capitol multilingualism – I was greeted in my mother tongue by this guide who also knew melody of the Slovak national anthem ‘Nad Tatrou sa blyska’

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Arlington Cemetery

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