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POLITICS: Congress reluctantly eyes up a full in-tray

Although there are far fewer street protests than in June, a new type of citizen activism is keeping congressional deputies on their toes. A number of highly contentious bills are up for debate, meaning there will be more scrutiny than usual of developments in Brasília. However, like a leopard, the Brazilian congress appears reluctant to change it spots.

On 13 August, after the end of the recesso branco (when the legislature sits, but does not vote), a rebellious federal house of deputies voted by a large majority to approve the so-called ‘mandatory budget’ (orçamento impositivo), which will require the federal government to make mandatory budget allocations for congressional spending.

Despite desperate last-minute negotiations by the minister for institutional relations, Ideli Salvatti, the sprawling ruling coalition delivered another heavy blow to President Dilma Rousseff.  With even deputies from the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) voting in favour of the controversial measure, Brazil’s defiant congress, the most publically-reviled institution in the country, demonstrated yet again that  self-preservation trumps all else.  Deputies seemed oblivious to the fact that the congress’s disapproval rating rose a hefty nine percentage points to 42% (from 33% previously) in the latest Datafolha poll.

The move is a kick in the teeth for the Rousseff executive’s efforts to tighten up the fiscal position by reining in the colossal amounts of current expenditure doled out in the budget, around 84% of which is mandatory, leaving little for much-needed capital investment and fuelling the country’s high inflation levels.

With 378 votes to 48 (and 13 abstentions), deputies backed the original special committee-approved text of constitutional amendment proposal (PEC) 565/06, which reserves 1% of net federal revenues, or approximately R$6.75bn (US$2.94bn) annually, for exclusive use by congress. As a result, it would set aside as much as R$10.4m in budget funding for each and every federal deputy (513 in all) to spend in their home districts. The PEC 565/06 effectively strengthens the entrenched pork barrel system in Brazil, whereby deputies of all stripes condition their support for the executive on funding for pet projects in their home districts.

Under existing budget rules, the federal government has been able to freeze discretionary budget funding as and when it saw fit so as to meet its annual fiscal savings targets. To date in 2013, the finance ministry has frozen R$38bn in budget spending to meet the public sector primary budget surplus target of R$110.9bn, the equivalent of 2.3% of GDP.

By way of a compromise, the executive had sought to get 50% of these mandatory pork barrel funds tied to health, but the congress rebuffed that; and the executive in turn rejected its offer of 33%, sticking to its 50% demand. The PEC requires two rounds of voting in the senate and the lower chamber, so it’s not a done-deal yet, Salvatti and Health Minister Alexandre Padilha warned last night.

However, deputies have conditioned their approval of the 2014 budget-guidelines bill (LDO 2014) on the new measure, arguing that the executive branch has too much control over the budget. While the ruling PT is officially against the PEC 565/06, the party whip, José Guimarães, gave deputies a free vote and the majority voted in favour.

Dozens of other votes have been scheduled for late August, chief among which is a bill to determine the exact division of oil royalties. At the end of June, following weeks of protests, congress voted to designate 75% of royalties from newly found oil fields to education and 25% to healthcare. It has not yet been made clear when those royalties would start being allocated. Other keenly anticipated bills are the National Education Plan, a bill granting free transport for students; a bill which would make corruption a “heinous crime”, with mandatory jail time and tougher minimum prison sentences; and a constitutional amendment (PEC) that would do away with secret voting by politicians in a number of instances, including in votes on vetoes.

  • Carandiru officers sentenced

On 3 August 25 police officers were handed long sentences for their part in the 1992 massacre in São Paulo's Carandiru jail that left 111 prisoners dead. Each officer received 624 years for the death of 52 inmates, but no one will serve more than 30 years in jail. The verdicts come in the second of four stages of the trial involving different floors of the prison. Twenty-three officers were convicted in April. The police are expected to remain free pending an appeal. The officers, nine of whom are still on active duty, will also lose their jobs.

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