Behind the prolonged absence of heads of House committeesThe committees are tasked with holding particular government agencies to account but for a lack of leadership, they have been ineffective.
Following indifference of the parties to electing the chairpersons of the parliamentary committees, Speaker of the House of Representatives on July 5 urged the cross-party top leadership for their prompt election. Prime Minister and CPN (Maoist Centre) chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba and CPN-UML Chairman KP Sharma Oli had agreed to elect the heads of the committees without delay. However, two weeks after assurance, all the committees of the House and the joint panels of both chambers are still lying vacant. And it is still unclear when they will get their leadership.
Against this backdrop, the Post explores the reasons for the delay, its impact and the overall performance of the federal parliament.
How many parliamentary committees does the federal parliament have?
The federal parliament has 16 committees—10 in the House of Representatives, four in the National Assembly and two are common. There are also scopes to form special committees like the impeachment recommendation committee or the special committee to monitor and recommend the implementation of federalism. Such committees, however, are temporary.
All the panels of the Assembly have got their chairpersons. However, the remaining 12 including the two with representatives from both the chambers are without leadership. The oldest members are leading each committee as a temporary measure.
What roles do the House panels play?
In parliamentary democracy, the committees are set up to make Parliament more effective in its business. Their role increases when the House sessions are irregular. Parliamentary committees also effectively monitor the government’s actions and the functioning of other state bodies by putting the executive’s decisions up for debate. Unlike the full House, they can thoroughly discuss not just major issues but also minor ones and give direction to the government and its agencies.
The House committees have been designed in such a way that each has the responsibility to hold particular government agencies to account. For instance the education, health, communication and youth and sports ministries along with their subordinate bodies come under the purview of the Education, Health and Information Technology Committees of the lower house, respectively.
Generally, lawmakers file a number of amendments to the bills registered in Parliament. As the full House is constrained by time to discuss each of the bills in detail, they are sent to the respective parliamentary committees for discussion. For instance, the transitional justice Act amendment bill has received 28 revision proposals. It has been sent to the Law, Justice and Human Rights Committee for finalisation. The committees generally bridge differences among the parties over a particular bill, easing its endorsement.
Why are the committees still headless?
It is primarily because the parties are yet to reach an agreement in dividing the spoils, according to lawmakers from different parties. If the existing agreement stands, the main opposition party will get the leadership of three committees including the Public Accounts Committee and a joint committee. The third committee for the CPN-UML is yet to be decided.
The seven ruling parties will divide the leadership of the nine House committees among themselves. It is unlikely that fringe parties including the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party and the Nagarik Unmukti Party, which have four and six lawmakers respectively, will get any leadership position even though they have staked a claim. So eventually, the nine chairpersons will be divided among the Congress, the Maoist Centre, the Janata Samajbadi Party and the CPN (Unified Socialist).
While picking ministers in the Dahal Cabinet, the top leaders had assured some of their lawmakers who were aspirants for ministers that they would be appointed chairpersons of the House committees. “There are many aspirants from our party. Who gets the chance depends on how many committees we get,” said a Congress lawmaker who also is an aspirant for a chairperson. The chairpersons of the House committees are entitled to pay and perks on par with ministers of state.
How has the performance of mini-parliaments been affected?
Though the meeting of the lower house elected from the November polls commenced on January 9, it took more than three months for the formation of the House committees following differences among the parties over Parliament’s regulation. Even when the thematic committees were formed on April 28, they were without chairpersons. “The House committees haven’t functioned effectively in the absence of leadership. The appointment will continue to be delayed if we wait for the decision of party leaders,” said Ranju Jha, a Janata Samajbadi Party lawmaker who is also a former chair of a committee.
In the July 5 meeting, Speaker Ghimire had warned top leaders that he would start an election process if they continue to dilly-dally. The regulation of the lower house allows the Speaker to announce the election dates for the chairpersons by issuing a 48-hour advance notice. Shekhar Adhikari, press advisor to the Speaker, said some decisions could be made when the House resumes. The lower house has been deferred until July 26 at the request of the lawmakers who wanted to take a leave to visit their constituencies.
Som Bahadur Thapa, a former secretary at the Parliament Secretariat, also said the House committees haven’t functioned effectively primarily because they lack leadership. “It is natural that these mechanisms without leaders are ineffective,” he said. “It is wrong to keep the House committees headless for so long.”
What is the impact on Parliament’s overall performance?
The performance of the lower house has been ineffective for the past seven months, says Thapa. Except for endorsement of bills related to the national budget for the current fiscal year, the bill on criminalising usurious lending is the only law it has endorsed in the time. It has crucial bills like the amendment to the Enforced Disappearances Enquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, amendment to the Constitutional Council Act and amendment on anti-money laundering Act among others to endorse. They have been pending for months as the House committees are yet to give them final shape.