Tomorrow is the opening day of the fall legislative season in the Hungarian parliament. What is to be expected? Here’s the run-down of the most important of the legislative agenda of Fall 2011.
Government by Parliamentary Caucus
“Government by parliamentary caucus”: this is the term Policy Agenda, a Hungarian think tank coined to describe the Hungarian parliament’s legislative style since the 2010 elections. While during the previous twenty years, the majority of the country’s legislation was developed by government officials, since the election of a two-third majority, legislative drafts are typically penned by party politicians, most especially by prominent members of the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary caucus.
From a productivity perspective, the advantage of politician-sponsored legislation is its speediness: the author of the legislation is available to rewrite bills for any necessary changes that might be thought necessary by other members of the caucus. As such, the bill goes through parliament much faster. Its disadvantage is that the more ad-hoc changes are made to a bill before cross-checking with other laws, the more legal inconsistencies and loopholes are created unwittingly through the process. These usually require further reconciliation in another legislative act – which, if written by another party politician, could lead to even more inconsistencies.
Case in Point: Hungary’s Religion Law
Hungary’s religious bill – the hottest item of criticism outside of Hungary from among this summer’s legislative output – could perhaps serve as a cautionary tale in this respect.
The bill, which famously restricts the number of churches officially recognized as such to an elite list of 14 different religions – as compared to the over 350 churches operative in one form or another in Hungary – was substantially rewritten just hours before passing (even though such substantial changes on such short notice were added to the bill in violation of the parliament’s house rules). The original bill, written by the Christian Democrats – a party that has merged with Fidesz, but nevertheless retains its own party organization within the parliamentary caucus – proposed recognizing 44, though in three categories. János Lázár, leader of the governing party’s parliamentary caucus found the categorization of churches unconscionable, striking two out of the three categories, and leaving the bill recognizing only 14 churches – to the Christian Democrats’ utter surprise.
The story is almost impossible to untangle if one were not in the back-room in which the edits to the bill were made. It seems that the original intention of the Christian Democrats was to raise the number of members in a church from the previous 100 to 1000. But as of today, a blunt contradiction in the law makes interpretation of the law considerably difficult: one of the paragraphs of the law requires that any church recognized as such must verify that it has at least 1000 members, while János Lázár, leader of the majority parliamentary caucus stroke the same requirement from another paragraph, so another definition of “church” is provided in the same law which does not contain this criterion.
The ambiguity is quite important for the churches that did not receive automatic recognition through the bill: though the Hungarian law on religion recognizes only 14 specific churches, other churches could theoretically come to be recognized – through mechanisms and definitions yet to be specified by either the government or by a revision of the law by the Parliament. In other words, a law has been passed, but it does more to complicate than to settle the issues it is supposed to regulate.
The Race to January 1, 2011
The Hungarian government is increasingly caught up in the traps of legislating by its parliamentary caucus. Their own momentum is spurring them to work even faster, and the unavoidable mistakes only add to the chaos – to the point that members of parliament, even on the government’s side, complain of having no idea whatsoever about which draft version of a bill is under vote, who wrote it, and what it says.
During the fall season, the greatest source of pressure is that the governing party’s two-third majority passed a constitution during the spring legislative season. This consitution is set to go into effect on January 1, 2012, but unless 28 “fundamental” laws are modified before then, the country’s constitution will contradict the country’s laws.
“Fundamental” (sarkalatos, in Hungarian) laws are laws that require a two-third majority for their passing. Since no one party ever had such a supermajority since Hungary’s first free elections, and since Hungarian political life had been so polarized during these last two decades that consensus regarding these issues was for the most part, some of these laws are going to be changed since the consensus era of 1989. 28 of these especially important laws are going to be changed in the next four months. Perhaps even more importantly, they are going to be changed for the last time until another party or coalition of parties acquires a two-third majority at a future election.
During the fall legislative season, the government is planning on submitting 63 new legislative proposals to the Parliament. This number does not include bills sponsored by individual politicians. There is no doubt that the rate at which legislation is to proceed in the Parliament will provide plenty of opportunities for error, as well as for abuse. The use of last-minute riders – additional bills unrelated in content to a legislation under discussion – is becoming more and more frequent. For example, beyond the deliberation phase allotted for the bill, just moments before the Hungarian parliament was set to vote on their own salaries, lengthy sections were attached to the bill which changed regulations pertaining to the energy industry.
Though all of the above are serious concerns about the Hungarian parliament’s activity, let’s be sure not to forget a less frequently remembered concern. While members of the Hungarian parliament are too busy not to contradict themselves, society-wide deliberations in the law-making process – and the incorporate ideas from opposition parties, civic organizations, or experts of the field – is no longer a realistic possibility.
Errors described above are only likely to multiply during the next legislative season. But what else can one do to prepare for the barrage of laws passed in the near future than prepare for them with due anticipation? The following are only the highlights of legislation to be discussed in the Hungarian parliament in the following few months.
September 12: On the opening day of the Parliament, a law is likely to be passed fixing the exchange rate for those wishing to repay in full loans they received in foreign currency. Already subject of outrage in financial circles, the government would mandate banks to accept payment of these loans at an exchange rate considerably lower than the current market rate – and which are only expected to rise in the future. Though this is the kind of state intervention that, one might suppose, would require a systematic financial philosophy, as well as assessment of the bill’s impact on the financial sector – which are traditionally the role of ministries and related government offices – the law is sponsored by János Lázár, one of Fidesz’s most partisan party politician.
September 29: United action by an alliance of over 70 trade unions is likely to shut down the country temporarily: demonstrations, strikes and partial road closures are being planned.
Some of the most important laws of the legislative season are to be passed. These include the law regulating non-governmental and civil organizations, the law on public education, the law regulating the rights of minority nationals, as well as two of the biggest items of the legislative season: the employment law and the election law. The latter is to determine the procedure for electing a new parliament in 2014.
On October 23, on the national day in remembrance of the revolution in 1956, demonstrations are being organized by the group “1 million for Press Freedom” in conjunction with the trade unions.
The most impactful on the agenda appear to be the law of municipal governance and modifications to the health care law. The most important seems to be the passing of legal regulations for civil guard movements (i.e. the extreme right vigilante militias).
December is when the parliament finally buckles down to pass a budget for the next year, as well as a law for its army.
I am extremely grateful to the Hungarian news portal Index for publishing a list of the 63 legislative proposals proposed by government sources, along with their brief background (if you read Hungarian, this is a wonderful resource).