The Brazilian Congress has good reason to be ashamed of the low credibility
rating the public has given it. After enjoying decades of prestige in the late
1980s and early 1990s – with the redemocratization, the resistance to the
dictatorship, the struggle for direct election of the President, the preparation
of the Constitution and the approval of impeachment – the Congress entered into
a crisis of credibility beginning with the Budget Scandal of the 1990s.
Since then it has not recovered.
Successive moral crises have affected not only those directly involved, but also the entire legislative institution and, as a consequence, the democracy itself. What’s worse, however, is that the spreading scandals crisis is hiding the deeper causes of the credibility crisis.
The ethical scandals are not the true cause of the Congress’s loss of credibility. They merely reflect a surface rottenness, hiding the rusty functioning of our institutions. Although they are imperceptible, at least three reasons are undermining congressional credibility in an even graver manner. They are hidden scandals.
The first is the lack of causes for which to struggle. In the periods when the Congress enjoyed its greatest credit, there were inspirational causes, and the speeches were heard with respect. The public threw flowers at the senators after they voted for the Lei Áurea, which abolished slavery.
During the military regime, the members of Congress were pointed out in the street as warriors for democracy. In the early 1960s, there was much discussion between the left and the right about the paths Brazilian society should take.
These attracted the attention of the public, not only because the orators and their rhetoric were better than nowadays, but also because they had causes that served as a basis for the oratory. Today, applause is infrequent and comes only from organized groups when their corporative interests are met by the voting.
Because of this, the speeches have become irrelevant. Rarely do they provoke debate and, in general, they are heard only in Plenary Session. (The publication of an article like this one could make more people uncomfortable than if it were to be read in the Plenary and transmitted by TV Senado.)
The second grave reason is the weakening of the Congress in what should be the balance among the three powers. In the last few years, the Congress has been a power that rubber-stamps provisionary measures from the Executive and preliminary measures from the Judiciary.
Instead of legislating, the legislator is taken by surprise, submissive, legislated him or herself by preliminary or provisory measures. Hanging his or her head like a child caught doing something wrong or bowing down to the strength of the grownups.
The third is the lack of synchronization between the agenda of Congress and the needs of the majority of the people. The grave problems of Brazilian society – unemployment, violence, healthcare, inequality, poverty, and schooling – are going to remain hidden, even buried under the ethical scandals that attract the attention of everyone, especially the media.
One need only observe how many times we, the members of Congress, utter the word “people,” how many times the people’s problems are mentioned in the speeches, and how often we are leaders in seeking solutions to these problems. One need only see how often these matters are mentioned in the speeches from the podium, and how often we speak of them on the campaign trail.
If the Congress wants to recover its credibility, it must rigorously confront its members’ behavior. But, above all, it must review the political action of its members, linking the Congressional agenda with the needs of the majority of the people, lighting the flame of great national causes and taking back its role as a legislature that fights for equal power with the Executive and the Judiciary.
It is necessary to confront its visible scandals with transparency and wake to the hidden scandals. That will be the most difficult part because today we are not going to face ready-made causes and the political parties that decided to monopolize the causes on the left have accommodated themselves before the world. They do not perceive the hidden scandals and – what’s worse – they are even closing their eyes to those that are visible.
Cristovam Buarque has a Ph.D. in economics. He is a PDT senator for the Federal District and was Governor of the Federal District (1995-98) and Minister of Education (2003-04). He is the current president of the Senate Education Commission. Last year he was a presidential candidate. You can visit his homepage – www.cristovam.com.br – and write to him at email@example.com
Translated from the Portuguese by Linda Jerome – LinJerome@cs.com.