This made me reflect on the accuracy of the oft made statement that Sri Lanka is such a great democracy because large numbers turn out at the polls and elect, in certain instances, perhaps some of the worst criminals in the country who then become ministers, deputies and monitors.
10 May, 2011. by Harsha de Silva Ph.D
I am on an American Airlines flight from Phoenix, Arizona to St Louis, Missouri having enjoyed the only break in the rigorous seven week Eisenhower Fellowship program at the Grand Canyon, America’s great natural wonder.
I came to Phoenix after a few rewarding days in Boston, rather Cambridge, having met with some of the most respected academics at MIT and Harvard on issues of public policy. The ravioli lunch with five types of mushrooms and the long chat with perhaps the largest buyer of apparel from Sri Lanka was a treat even though out of my direct line of interest of the fellowship. It was wonderful to hear Martin Trust say that Sri Lanka has some of the most ethical entrepreneurs and very high quality workers producing sophisticated garments for the top end of the US market. He sees great hope for Sri Lanka. I told him that I do too. We have the right ingredients; all what we need now is to put in place the right policies to harness the talent to build our nation with equal opportunities to all. As a politician it is my responsibility to ensure that happens.
As an Eisenhower Fellow, one of twenty ‘emerging leaders’ from as many countries, I was presented with the fantastic opportunity to structure my own program in the US. Knowing very well that the Fellowship carries such prestige that it opens otherwise impossible doors, I formulated my plan to meet with a cross section of stakeholders in the policy arena. I wanted to understand, to the extent possible given the limited time, the interaction of politicians; think tanks, academics and lobby groups; and the media, in the policy making process in this nation. My purpose was not to study the theoretical aspects of enacting legislation within the framework of checks and balances of the three branches of government, but to examine the practical functioning of the process among the various parties. I wanted to observe the dynamics of these different groups in converging and diverging on issues to elicit public support for the positions they were pursuing. I was particularly interested in the multi-way debate based on data, analysis and evidence.
The reason for this is natural. As a new MP I have been observing with dismay for an entire year the way in which legislation is enacted in Sri Lanka. The primary shortcoming I see is the lack of substance based discussion and debate. I witnessed how Bills became Acts, or law, with hardly any discussion. I participated in embarrassingly poor quality debate in the Chamber where some ministers never uttered a word on the subject but spent time personally attacking opposition members at times breaking in to raw filth. I also saw how certain government members, together with politicized officials, ridicule amendments proposed by the opposition notwithstanding the value of such, before getting them passed as is. And most of all I was witness to the grossly unjust procedure employed to amend our very constitution at lightening speed with the help of several opportunistic politicians of my own party and the so called left who sold their soul for political expediency.
The process of enacting law in the US I am certain has its own limitations while the procedure itself is different to that of Sri Lanka where no Bill is presented to the full House or Senate unless it gets past the committees comprising members of both parties. But what is important is the level of discussion of the subject matter. I spent almost two weeks in Washington DC during and after the discussion on the ‘government shutdown debate’ that ended at the eleventh hour after President Obama and the republican controlled House compromised on the almost USD 80 billion expenditure cut just minutes before the deadline. The debate, albeit along party lines, was of the highest quality. Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Republican controlled House budget committee presented a proposal that he named ‘Path to Progress’ which he argued would avoid the US economy going bankrupt in another 25 years if it continued with the current spending plan of the President and the democrat controlled senate. The plan was anchored on a highly advanced model developed by academics at the Centre fro Data Analysis at the prestigious think tank Heritage Foundation. This plan was pitted against the President’s plan which itself was prepared by technocrats of the highest quality. The debate was supported with voluminous data and analysis made available to congressmen and senators from the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office as well as private think tanks. There was an incredible debate on the matter. As is the case in DC, lobbyists were also at play, cornering legislators and giving them reasons why one plan was better than the other. The media was on overdrive. Television, radio and newspapers had in-depth analyses. Some of the best known personalities contributed and took positions pro and contra. Social media sites played their ever expanding role, uploading among others a Youtube video of Paul Ryan showing an animated graph that had the US debt reaching 345 percent of GDP by 2050 before announcing that the computers simulating the US economy at the Congressional Budget Office crashed before reaching the year 2037; at which point the US economy could no longer be sustained. People commented; some in support, others totally opposed. Regular opinion polls were conducted to assess public opinion. They segmented the analysis by conservatives and liberals, by men and women, by young and the old etc. providing a comprehensive view of how the American people felt their elected representatives should act. Finally the politicians arrived at a compromise decision.
Actually, I should not say finally because now the debate has moved on to the next logical question of the debt ceiling. Unless the US congress agrees to increase the current borrowing limit of USD 14.3 trillion before the 2nd of August the US Government may be forced to default on its debt. The debate is in full swing. This I contrast with Sri Lanka where the debt ceiling is increased by the Government on a regular basis without a word being said outside Parliament; there too perhaps a mere speech or two by the opposition that is hardly reported on. Critics of Government policy, who are usually labeled as traitors by the chest beating better-than-thou patriots, are today hard to come by for obvious reasons, bar a few civil society activists and journalists who continue to perform an unenviable task against all odds.
This heightened activity in the US capitol presented me with a great opportunity to learn and share my thoughts with a plethora of characters involved in the process. I crisscrossed town for meetings with politicians and policymakers, their advisors, senior staff at the US Treasury, congressional staff, the government accountability office, think tanks, academics, lobbyists, pollsters, public opinion specialists, media personnel and reflected on what I learnt with a friend who is an ultimate DC insider. I learnt so much. I learnt what real democracy meant. The fundamental premise in this country is that everyone has a voice; be it the individual who wants to express his or her opinion or groups or organizations pushing their positions via the hundreds of lobbyists. In fact, it was so heartening to see people lining up to sit in on congressional hearings to make their views heard by the politicians; some of whom who regularly travel by public transport. On an aside; besides President Obama who moved about with a large security contingent, I did not see a single politician traveling at breakneck speed on the wrong side of the street with gun-toting security guards pushing the public in to the well kept drains of the District of Columbia.
This made me reflect on the accuracy of the oft made statement that Sri Lanka is such a great democracy because large numbers turn out at the polls and elect, in certain instances, perhaps some of the worst criminals in the country who then become ministers, deputies and monitors. Let us take a case in point. Did the people really vote for the Government to make a new law to take away an additional combined four percent of salary from the employee and the employer to create a pension fund? One can argue that there is no need for further public participation to create a pensions scheme which will benefit the hard working private sector worker. True, there is no need to have a vote on every law that the Government makes and the minister has the right to propose new law as he represents the elected Government, but there must be a discussion and debate prior to new laws being enacted. How much public discussion took place prior to the Bill to Establish an Employees’ Pension Benefits Fund was to be “debated” in Parliament before becoming law? In a letter written to the President by civil society activist Chandra Jayaratne and published in the newspapers he had said “I appeal to Your Excellency not to proceed with the enactment of the above bill, until such time as the following issues have been adequately clarified and following an open and transparent intellectual debate…” This is exactly my point. I was away at the time this particular piece of legislation was brought to the House, but it is an everyday occurrence. Law is made without any public discussion and I believe the time has come for the people to participate in the process. It is a fact and nothing to be ashamed of; members of parliament are not knowledgeable in all matters. One could argue these bills are prepared by well meaning professionals of the relevant ministries. Perhaps, but still, there must be space for objective and transparent intellectual debate on the pros and cons and on costs and benefits and short versus long term impacts etc. This is particularly so given the well known fact that officials today have become subservient to their political masters.
Ideally this debate must take place in the public domain and thereafter expert submissions must be made to the consultative or other committees where the Parliamentarians can clarify matters. I am aware that I am making a suggestion that is outside our Parliamentary tradition, but it is time we start thinking outside the box. If we are to implement the right laws and policies to win the ‘economic war’ as stated by the President, we must be driven not purely by short term political gain, but by longer term national interest. For that, debate and discussion is paramount.
From St Louis I go to San Francisco and a number of other cities to learn more about this issue at a city and state level and interact with even more stakeholders of the process. Soon my Fellowship will come to and end. And on my return I intend to create a bipartisan group of members to push for changes that would enable greater debate and discussion before new laws are enacted. I hope I will have support for this endeavour.
The author (centre) with Ambassdor Terry Miller, Director Center for International Trade and Economics and Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow Heritage Foundation and some guests at the talk delivered at the Heritage Foundation.