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Political Science

Professional Deputy

Contrary to myth, congressmen do have experience when they go to Congress


The leading newspapers usually state that the Brazilian Congress is hampered by the existence of outsiders, people with little or no political experience: singers, pastors, actors, TV presenters, soccer players, who are good at getting elected and then “fading away.” Still according to this consensus, many other newly elected inexperienced politicians use Congress as a springboard, because they prefer positions in local and state governments, and as soon as they can, they abandon Congress whenever such an opportunity arises. However, when cross checking data referring to the turnover at the Chamber of Deputies in the period from 1946 to 2007, political scientist Mayla Di Martino found a significantly different result: the professional politician predominates in Brazil and, what seems to be a constant coming and going is actually part of a long-term strategy to remain in this profession. This is the focus of her doctorate thesis in political sciences, A política como profissão, recently presented at the University of São Paulo, under the academic advice of professor Fernando Limongi.

“To hold a seat in Congress entails having entered politics early and having had some success in this career. It is necessary to have become a professional, won elections or been appointed to important political posts,” says the researcher. She states that, in the last 15 years, the so-called newcomers elected to the Chamber of Deputies had, on average won at least two elections to other political offices and 80% had had some kind of previous political experience.

At first glance, however, some data suggests that the general opinion is correct. What is the explanation for the fact that only one half, on average, of the congressional representatives get re-elected? In comparison with the United States, this contrast is even sharper: 90% of the U.S congressmen get re-elected. Another common event in Brazil is the fact that a high number of representatives interrupt their term in office before it expires. Most of them take a leave of absence to take up a ministerial post or a state secretariat post. Some of the representatives leave congress during the last two years of their terms in office; since 1968, an average of 17% of all the representatives elected to Congress also ran for mayor’s office when they were still holding a seat in Congress. An American congressman would never even consider leaving his congressional seat in Washington to sit in the mayor’s chair.

This apparent “abandonment” by the Brazilian congressman, however, has a long-term reason behind it, says Mayla Di Martino, the reason related to the demands of the complex political scenario in Brazil. “The meaning of a political career in Brazil is not illogical; it is not upside down, as some studies want us to believe. If the congressional representative abandons his seat in Brasília, it’s because the paths he has to follow to grow professionally are tortuous. Very often, the politician has to go back to a regional post as a way to move forward in terms of his national political career. This is related to the political recruitment structure at Congress, because this structure has always been much more regional, that is, overly dependent on local interests and elections,” she explains.

As for the presence of outsiders, this fact is highly publicized and focused on, but it is not the pattern. Of course there is space for media hype, especially when it refers to the TV presenter, the radio announcer, the singer or the soccer player, but these people are a minority, agrees David Fleischer, Ph.D. in political sciences and a professor at the University of Brasília (UnB). The common background is that of a deputy that represents a micro region, he says. “For example, a mayor is elected to congress and very often is re-elected as mayor,” he states. Likewise, in the Senate, many senators are former state governors, who are later re-elected to the same office of state governor. Therefore, a strong political position in cities and states is a decisive factor – even in the case of electing a representative to the main local political positions.

SÉRGIO LIMA/FOLHA IMAGEMBackstage Congress: the complex politics of coming and going SÉRGIO LIMA/FOLHA IMAGEM

Fabiano Santos, Ph.D. in political sciences and a professor at the Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Rio de Janeiro (Iuperj) research center, states that new surveys on the Legislative Branch have indeed revealed that this professional politician characteristic is much more siginificant than expected. “We are moving towards a more professional Congress, with highly qualified congressional advisors, whose recruitment is based on merit,” says Argelina Cheibub Figueiredo, Ph.D. in political sciences and a professor at Iuperj, who laments that this general opinion on politicians still prevails. “In spite of the growth of surveys on Brazil’s Legislative Branch, the caricatural view still prevails, especially in the press, and this interpretation is based on exceptional facts and not on the congressional daily routine.” She points out that Brazil’s Congress has provided proof of its maturity on many occasions. “We tend to forget that, in spite of all the restrictive measures taken by the military regime during its twenty year watch, the Brazilian Congress has functioned with hardly any interruption, with the exception of a period of less than one year, in 1969. And during this entire period, Congress has played an important role in the political process, even during the dictatorship when, although its political role was restricted, it prepared itself in technical and organizational terms.”

There is a big difference in terms of turnover when one makes a comparison with the U.S. Congress. In comparison to France, however, Brazil’s Congress is similar in some ways to the French one, especially in terms of the “comings and goings” of a congressional career, which characterizes Brazil’s Congress.  For example in France, in 2006, 89% of the national deputies had a term in office at the National Assembly and held an elected term in office at a regional or local level. “Like Brazil, the French deputies need to maintain their links with local politics if they want to move forward politically,” explains the political scientist.

French specialists say that this highly regional pattern of congressional recruitment in France, coupled with the professionalism of the congressmen, has led to a situation referred to as “cumul des mandats,” or, the accumulation of terms in office. “Because a French deputy is a professional politician, he needs to accumulate the political resources to keep him moving forward on his career path: the opportunity of holding  mayoral office and, at the same time, have a seat in the national assembly, provides obvious opportunities in terms of contact with the voters, influence in the political party, weapons to be used in congressional re-election campaigns or in the battle for other important political positions on a national level,” says the researcher.

In France, as in Brazil, therefore, the federal congressmen’s search for political office on a local level does not imply that a congressional career on a national level is not important. This focus on local political office is a strategy of elected congressmen to mitigate the risks of loosing future elections. This strategy is commonly resorted to in multi-party political systems highlighted by sharp election-related volatility. “My thesis seeks to clear up the exceptional characteristic that people try to attribute to Congress in Brazil, by showing that the paths leading to Congress, both here and in other developed countries, are quite similar.”

The researcher’s data base contains the individual progress of four thousand federal deputies, from 1946 to 2007 – starting from each deputy’s first public office until the final exit from the National Congress – including all elections and leaves of absence during the politician’s term in Congress. To understand the numbers, the researcher used a broader analysis methodology than the ones used in previous surveys. “It was possible to show that, in spite of the increase in the number of interruptions in a given congressional career because of appointments to ministerial or secretariat posts, or to run for mayoral office, time-wise, the deputies’ terms in office have increased,” the researcher states.

Pros and cons
Restricted access to the political career itself is an immediate consequence of such professionalism, says Mayla Di Martino. In places where politics is dominated by professionals, the entrance of outsiders is highly restricted, and participants tend to create the instruments to keep control in their hands. Suffice it to recall that the legislators vote on countless issues that are related to their careers, in or out of Congress, as for example, electoral rules. “But this is how the system works in developed countries, whether the system is a parliamentary or presidential system. And this holds true in Brazil as well,” says the researcher.

The negative effect of such professionalism, understood as the restriction of turnover of the political elite, is that this leads to a barrier that increasingly separates those that were elected from the ones who elected them. In the attempt to protect their positions, congressmen do not feel obliged to respond to the demands of their voters. As a result, political scandals become more common and contaminate even such prestigious institutions as the British Parliament, where, in 2009, prominent members of Parliament were caught red-handed using cabinet funds for their own benefit.

The organizational capacity of Congress or Parliament is the positive consequence of such professionalism, says the researcher. “Studies on the U.S Congress have indicated that better adapted and more experienced congressmen are more skillful at approving laws,” she explains. The U.S. Congress also has a career plan, which makes congressional life an objective in itself – some legislators can collect votes or gain powerful positions in their political parties through their congressional work as members of congressional committees, as many of these in-house positions hold national prestige and exposure. “This leads the U.S. Congress to be very active and highly independent from the Executive Branch,” she adds.

However, in her opinion, nobody has as yet answered whether the professionalism of congressional politics is capable of leading to a configuration of Congress along the lines of the U.S. Congress, in terms of the possibility of building up an internal congressional career. “Many specialists would like to see the Brazilian Congress resemble the U.S. congressional model, in the hope that Brazil’s Legislative Branch would become less dependent on the political agenda dictated by the Executive Branch.”

In the opinion of David Fleischer, from the University of Brasília, the lack of prestige of the Brazilian Congress is not only because of the succession of scandals that constantly paralyze it, but also because of the weakened power in relation to the Executive Branch. “Our president has imperial powers, which jeopardizes the autonomy of the House of Representatives and of the Senate. For example, the president can make changes in the Budget at any time and appoint people to office without the need for approval. This is not how things work in the United States,” he says, It is not surprising that the Brazilian Congress is named as the least reliable institution in public opinion surveys, says the professor from the University of Brasilia.

Fabiano Santos, from Iuperj, says that it is necessary to move forward in terms of initiating their own congressional agendas, independent from that of the Executive Branch, especially in the economic, financial and administrative areas. “We are at the forefront in this respect in Latin America, not only in terms of the institutionalization of procedures, the ability to store and disclose information on congressional activity, but also in terms of data to process decisions. We are doing quite well in certain aspects, in comparison with the USA and other developed countries, and not so well in other aspects,” he adds. The responsibilities of political parties in the national political scenario is one of the issues that needs to be addressed and explored in future surveys and debates. “It is very easy to expel a member from the political party because of accusations of corruption, and, the opinion that the political party has very little influence on election outcomes; election victory being due to the candidate’s personal charisma or political experience, in other words political personalism,  a view which is widely disseminated in Brazil,” says Mayla Di Martino.

Thus, she adds, the professionalism paradigm allows one to view this situation from another angle: to remain n the game, the candidates depend on the political party: they need to be appointed to elected positions or to positions of trust; they need shelter in times of electoral disappointments – when they lose an election, most politicians have to interrupt or put their political careers on hold. “It is necessary to change the paradigm in terms of how political parties are analyzed in Brazil: as soon as political analysts start to believe that they truly influence Brazil’s political life, perhaps they will be able to raise the awareness of the Brazilian population to the fact that election time is the right time to punish political parties for the mistakes of their candidates,” says the researcher from USP.