House committees matter, but they don’t matter. In Nepal, mini parliaments are failing in their jobParliamentary committees should do the real work, but the way they are functioning and issuing directives shows they are falling short of holding the administration to account.
For the electorate, Parliament’s visible part is the House floor. Sessions are often televised live and members of the public know what’s going on in the House. Many, however, are not aware of where the spade work of parliamentary functioning is done. This is a different forum. They are known as parliamentary committees and are also called mini parliaments.
While Parliament has, in general, two sessions—budget and winter—parliamentary committees work round the year. The committees help Parliament resolve some complex and technical matters regarding legislation. They also function as an oversight mechanism on the working of the government. Simply put, they are the brains behind Parliament. That must be why Woodrow Wilson, before he became the 28th president of the United States in 1913, wrote: “... Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.”
But it is a different story these days.
The committees are made up of elected lawmakers, and oftentimes they experience a knowledge gap when it comes to some specialised and complex subject matters.
In such situations, the purpose of the committees gets defeated.
A case in point is the Parliamentary Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights on August 21 directing the government to set up 10,000 ventilators and intensive care units across the country. The committee also directed the government to set up the real time polymerase chain reaction test facilities in all 77 districts across the country. The directives, prima facie, are well-intentioned. But what they failed to comprehend is whether the government has the wherewithal to do so.
The directive remains in limbo, and it may go down into record books as “unimplemented”.
The problem is, say experts on parliamentary affairs, the House committee did not consult experts before passing the directive. Nor did it evaluate the cost and human resources that would have been required if the government were to implement the directive.
Another example is the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives on May 12 telling the government to remove Indian security forces from the Kalapani area.
The committee also condemned the act of the Indian government to construct a road to connect China via Lipulekh Pass.
While the first directive is almost impossible for the government to implement, and in the case of the second it is something the committee should not have even entered, as it does not need to condemn anything, according to the experts on parliamentary affairs.
Experts say House committees are ruining their reputations and eroding their significance by making whimsical decisions.
Surya Kiran Gurung, former general secretary at the Parliament Secretariat, says he is sometimes amazed by some parliamentary committee decisions.
“The majority of committee members never do their homework,” Gurung told the Post. “Our lawmakers do not have a culture of studying. Most of the time they make decisions for cheap popularity. Such decisions render House committees ineffective.”
Lawmakers in general, barring a few, are full-time politicians. That’s why, analysts say, they are generalists and there is nothing wrong with that, as Parliament despite being the apex law-making institution, is also a forum for politics. When lawmakers air their views from the House floor, they usually either support the government or hold it to account depending on which side of the aisle they sit. But by and large, when they deliver speeches, they are addressing their constituents from the House.
When it comes to legislating some complex and specialised matters, they, however, are faced with challenges, as they might lack the academic base, formal or informal training or depth.
In such cases, lawmakers need to deliberate on such issues at the House committees by inviting experts on respective subject matters, say former parliamentarians.
“The culture of not studying and researching, inefficiency of committee chairpersons and a lack of culture of consulting experts combined together lead to random decisions from the mini parliaments,” said Tara Nath Ranabhat, who served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives from August 1999 to May 2002. The House Speaker’s role is also crucial. The executive usually looks for excuses to ignore House committees’ decisions and if they pass impractical and weird directives, they do not help in holding the government to account.”
Ranabhat’s assertion that the House Speaker can play a crucial role stems from the fact that many House committees in Nepal often have members with conflicts of interest. Such a situation could result in a lopsided legislation that could serve the interest groups, rather than the general public.
Even lawmakers agree that immature, and at times ludicrous, decisions by mini parliaments are responsible for their ineffectiveness.
“Only if the House committees make studied decisions after proper research and consultations with experts, will the government be under pressure to abide by them,” said Radheshyam Adhikari, a National Assembly member from the Nepali Congress. “On many occasions, parliamentary committees are making populist decisions.”
According to Adhikari, the House Speaker and the chairman of the National Assembly need to sit with chairpersons of the House committees to evaluate them and guide them as it is their responsibility to make them effective.
“But that is not happening,” Adhikari told the Post.
At times, discussions in Nepal’s House committees are not only unconstitutional but also below the dignity of lawmakers.
On Wednesday, members of the State Affairs Committee of Parliament sat to discuss an important and pressing issue—violence against women and children and rising number of rape cases.
Some committee members called for the death penalty for the perpetrators, oblivious of of the fact that the country’s consittution does not recognise capital punishment.
Jhapat Rawal, a committee member from the Nepal Communist Party, went on to demand a law to cut off rapists’ genitals if the death penalty cannot be ensured.
Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa went on to say it was nothing to be unduly worried about since among 225 countries, Nepal has the least number of rape cases, inviting criticism for making light of an issue like rape and violence againt women.
“The saddest part is the House committee chairperson did not bother to intervene,” said Gurung, the former general secretary. “This is just an example to show the level of discussions House committee members conduct and the types of decisions they ultimately come out with. The committee chairperson's role is equally important in maintaining the decorum and guiding discussions towards the right direction.”
Experts on parliamentary affairs say there are three factors contributing to arbitrary decisions of parliamentary committees. First, their longing for the publicity, second, lack of adequate research and consultations and, third, a feeling among the lawmakers that they know everything.
Hari Bahadur Thapa, who has extensively reported on parliamentary affairs, said he has witnessed the culture of consultations eroding in parliamentary committees, which leads to immature decisions.
“There was the practice of long consultations during the 1990s which led to mature decisions,” Thapa told the Post. “I don’t see that happening these days.”
According to Thapa, there are instances when even the then Royal Nepal Army, under direct command from the [royal] palace, had been compelled to roll back its decisions after a directive from the [parliamentary] Public Accounts Committee.
“To make these committees effective, there must be adequate research and consultations before they issue any directives,” said Thapa, a former journalist with Kantipur, the Post’s sister publication, who until a few months ago edited Annapurna Post, a vernacular daily published out of Kathmandu.
“At times I think the Parliament Secretariat too is failing to groom lawmakers which used to happen in the past.”
Lawmakers echo Thapa.
They say indiscriminate decisions by the House committees are the results of immaturity among lawmakers and chairpersons of the committees.
Bijay Subba, a member of the State Affairs Committee from the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), said lawmakers should be well prepared on the topic of discussion on that particular day.
“But that is not happening. You cannot expect mature decisions from the committees without significant discussions,” Subba, who has been a parliamentarian since 1991, told the Post. “When directives are immature, they are bound to not get implemented.”
This article has been updated. The earlier version said Parliament has, in general, three sessions. There are two House sessions.