Thomas Brackett Reed, once the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives branded the parliamentary committees as “the eye, the hand and the brain” of the legislature. These committees are placed in a highly strategic position to ensure horizontal accountability of the executive and other branches of the government. Horizontal accountability system works within the structures of institutions that checks abuses from within. The House of parliament being a predominantly deliberative and political body, its committees constitute the administrative tentacles of the legislative oversight system.
Parliamentary committees in Bangladesh are formed under the Constitution and the Rules of Procedure (RoP). Standing committees are constituted permanently for the whole tenure of a parliament, while special and select committees are constituted on temporary and ad hoc basis. Standing Committees on particular Ministries (SMCs) are special types of committees that constitute a shadow government by parliament. Number of SMCs to be established in each parliament is determined by respective leadership (Rule 225, RoP).
Theoretically the SMCs have been vastly powerful. Apart from the power to examine draft bills and other legislative proposals - public or private - in relation to the ministry concerned, committees also have the authority to review and recommend necessary measure for due enforcement of laws passed by parliament. Committees have plenary power of subpoena, investigation and inquiry into the activities or administration of relevant ministry. They can enforce attendance of witnesses, examination on oath, production of documents (Article 76 (2) and (3), Constitution of Bangladesh).
Though the parliamentary committee system in Bangladesh has been consolidated to some extent since the 7th parliament, it grew asymmetrically vis-à-vis the executive and bureaucratic branch. Speaking in its broader terms, weaknesses of our committee system are threefold – structural, political and behavioural (Nizam Ahmed (2001), 'Parliamentary committees and parliamentary government in Bangladesh', Contemporary South Asia, 10:1, 11-36).
Committees have been structurally weakened by factors like ministers' presence in the committee as ex officio members, nominal logistic support for the committees, negative attitude of the bureaucracy and government's tendency to effectively by-pass the committee stage in legislative process. On a political level, party influence over committee agenda and hard lined party stances of the members on key issues hampers autonomous functioning of the committees. On a behavioural analysis, political clog over psychic independence of party members and inexperience of the members contributed substantially towards below-the-bench performance of the committees. Most importantly, until recently there was an apparent lack of political will in changing the status quo and allowing the committee system to stand on its foot. Three particular developments in the current parliament however give us some hope.
First, prior to the 7th parliament (1996), parliamentary committees took years to be constituted in the first place. The 7th parliament amended the RoP to make sure that committees are constituted within the first session of each parliament. The current 11th parliament has created a record of fastest possible formation of all the standing committees only within the first 10 sittings of its very first session.
Second, a revision of RoP in June 1997 also made sure that ministers do not chair the parliamentary committee on his/her ministry. This was an extremely welcome development in terms of effectiveness of the committee system. Ministers now remain in the committee concerned as ex officio members. It has been argued that even this presence of a minister is bound to have an impact on the way the SCMs set their agenda, deliberate and decide. Ministers being the influential front bench leaders of the ruling party, chairmen of the SCMs were unlikely to be too assertive to embarrass the minister present. Therefore, it has long been argued that ministers go to committee only when they are called therein.
Seen in that light, the newly constituted committees in the 11th parliament (2019) constitute a milestone development no doubt. This time, almost all of the former ministers who are the front bench leaders of the ruling party and obviously more influential than the ministers concerned are allocated chair in various committees. The committees would definitely be benefitted by their expertise over the ministry as well as from the political superiority of the Chair over the minister. It has yet another crucial thing to offer and that is big. It would be a very wise practice to be followed by later parliaments and thereby establish a parliamentary convention of assigning senior leaders with expertise to the committee chairs. Such a convention if so established would go miles in institutionalising our parliamentary committee system.
Third, membership and chair in the committees are usually distributed among parliamentary parties in proportion to their representation in the floor. Until recently, the ruling parties exclusively claimed chairmanship of the different committees. The 9th parliament (2009) allocated some committee chairmanship to the opposition party. Though there were repeated calls for appointing the Chair of Public Accounts, Public Undertaking and Estimate Committee from the opposition parties, it has not been paid heed to until the current parliament (2019). A lawmaker from the main opposition Jatiya Party, Mr Rustam Ali Farazi is made Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), for the first time in the country's history.
With these three structural developments in the committee system, fundamental challenge for the current system would be in opening up more towards the citizens' access to committee proceedings. Transparent and open door committees are more likely to overcome the two other political and behavioural constraints clogging the system. The process will no doubt be slow yet these three developments provide the scope we were looking for so long.
The writer is a DOCTORAL Candidate (Parliament Studies), King's College London.