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History 126
Home » People » Dr. Carlos A. Contreras » History 126 » Congress Shifts Mexico's Balance of Power

Congress Shifts Mexico's Balance of Power

January 21, 2002

By GINGER THOMPSON, The New York Times


MEXICO CITY, Jan. 20 - When he took office 13 months ago, President Vicente Fox promised to break a 71- year-old tradition of imposing the president's will on the Congress. "The president proposes, the Congress decides," he declared.

Mr. Fox may not have realized the change he was setting in motion. In the democratic transition of Mexico, Congress has been remade from an institution that rubber-stamps presidential initiatives to one that holds the cards.

But no single party or coalition is in control, and because of term limits, many members are neither experienced nor close to their voters. In that situation, the 128 senators and 500 members of the lower chamber of deputies have diluted and even dismissed Mr. Fox's initiatives, alternately seizing and ignoring responsibility for Mexico's agenda, domestic and international.

Its chambers were once known for the rude remarks by opposition legislators to make their objections known to the president's envoys.

Today, the floor of Congress is often a setting for eloquent, informed debates on the most important issues in the land. Cabinet members submit regularly to legislative summonses.

During months of national debate on proposed tax reforms, powerful business sectors that once ignored Congress came to see it as a danger and started media campaigns to discredit it. Lobbyists groping to comprehend Mexico's dissonant centers of influence wonder whether the tail has begun to wag the dog.

"For the first time, the Congress is a real power in Mexico," said Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, coordinator in the lower Chamber of Deputies for Mr. Fox's conservative National Action Party. "We are living a true balance of power."

Over the last year, however, the power has not always looked balanced; instead, it has seesawed.

At the beginning of December, Mr. Fox offered to negotiate a settlement with the United States over trade barriers that stop 600 tons of sugar from entering United States markets each year. But the Mexican Congress blocked his effort.

In the final minutes of debate on its tax plan, Congress imposed a tax on soft drink producers that use fructose, which is principally imported from the United States.

"Businessmen have called, insinuating that we imposed a protectionist measure," said Senator Jesús Ortega, leader of the Democratic Revolution Party, which leans to the left. "I want to make it clear that we imposed a protectionist measure, just like the ones being used in the United States."

He went on: "We aim to protect Mexico's sugar industry, which is in serious crisis. Millions of people depend on them for their livelihood."

In another example, early last year, Mr. Fox proposed raising government funds for social programs by taxing food and medicine.

At the end of last month, Congress scuttled the plan, contending that it would hurt Mexico's poorest families. The action was led by Mr. Fox's party and the Democratic< Revolution Party. Instead of taxing food and medicine, Congress put new taxes on luxury items, including liquor, tobacco and cellular telephone service.

Furthermore, in contrast to the former ruling party's obedience to its presidents, the relationship of the National Action Party with the president is as cozy as a< snake pit.

At just about the same time that Mr. Fox held out an olive branch to Congress, he rebuffed his party by declaring that he, not the party, would govern Mexico. And his pragmatic style, including his choice of several leftists and former governing party leaders for high-level cabinet positions, does not often sit well with the leadership of the party.

Luis Carlos Ugalde, a political analyst and author of "The Mexican Congress, Old Player, New Power," said the current Congress projected the image of Mexico's growing plurality.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, ousted from the presidency by Mr. Fox's election, holds a simple majority. But measures require a vote by two-thirds of the members to become law, so laws can only be passed when two or more parties join together. When they do, they prove an important, long-overdue check on the powers of the executive.

But in a column published today in the newspaper Milenio, Mr. Ugalde also expressed serious concerns about excesses and abuses. "Who's watching the watchdogs?" he asked.

Rather than participating in Mexico's democratic evolution, Mr. Ugalde argued, Congress remains one of the last powerful vestiges of Mexico's secretive, unethical and autocratic traditions. Legislators have so little contact with their constituents, he said, that most Mexicans have no idea who represents them.

Though Mr. Fox's spending is open to scrutiny on the Internet, most legislators keep their earnings and expenses secret, Mr. Ugalde said. People cannot use their votes to punish legislators because Mexican lawmakers, like presidents, cannot be elected to consecutive terms. It is an institutional framework, Mr. Ugalde argued, that allows Congress to act with "legislative impunity."

Political analysts worry that with only one term in office - three years for members of the lower house and six years for senators - legislators are conditioned to serve the interests of their political parties, rather than their constituents. Legislators who want to serve as mayors and governors are also particularly beholden to their parties, which award candidacies and finance campaigns. Analysts also say that legislators have little time and incentive in a single term to learn how to do their jobs.

"They arrive like bonsais and they leave the same size," wrote a political analyst, Denise Dresser, in a column for the magazine Proceso.

"The principle of `true suffrage, no re-election,' has produced a perverse panorama," Ms. Dresser added. "A vote can get a politician to Congress, but later cannot punish what he does there."

Several legislators who were interviewed acknowledged that changes, including public accounting of expenditures and re-election with term limits, were being examined to make Congress more accountable to the people. Many of them said such measures would probably be approved before Mr. Fox leaves office in 2006.

In a sign of the new times, the strongest support for change comes from the former ruling party. One of its founding principles rejected re- election as a mechanism that helped elite families and political groups to stay in power. For 71 years, the party did not need elections to keep control of the government. It often used fraud and repression. Those tactics seem increasingly ineffective.

"In any other occupation, experience on the job is considered a significant advantage," said Senator Enrique Jackson, the party's leader in the Senate. "Its value is not quantifiable. It is considered essential. Shouldn't that be the case with legislators?"


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