Brazil - The Legislature
Brazil's national legislature is composed of the
513-member Chamber of Deputies and the eighty-one-member Senate.
Congress has a basic four-year term, but senators serve for eight
years. It meets from March through June, and from August through
December. The states have unicameral legislatures elected simultaneously
with Congress. The municipalities have city councils with four-year
terms; municipal elections take place two years after state and
national elections. Since 1930 Congress has been closed five times
under authoritarian intervention: November 1930 to December 1933;
November 1937 to February 1946; November 1966; December 1968 to
October 1969; and for fifteen days in April 1977.
The 1988 constitution restored most of the powers and prerogatives
that Congress had lost during the military regime. Congress enjoys
administrative and fiscal autonomy, as well as full power over the
budget. Under certain circumstances, it may issue legislative decrees
not subject to presidential veto. An absolute majority secret vote
in Congress is required to override a presidential veto. Congress
also has a very important role in setting national, especially economic,
policies. For example, it must approve all international agreements,
including renegotiation of the foreign debt.
Legislators enjoy almost total parliamentary immunity, even for
capital crimes, such as homicide. Even if the respective chamber
lifts the legislator's immunity by an absolute majority secret vote,
the legislator retains the privilege of being tried by the STF.
In December 1994, nearly 100 lawsuits (courts and prosecutors) sought
to lift the immunity of deputies and senators. However, the legislative
esprit de corps is so strong that only rarely does a case come to
the floor for a vote.
Since 1950 federal and state legislators have been elected at regular
four-year intervals. Senators must be at least thirty-five years
old. Each state has three seats, and one or two seats are elected
alternately every four years to eight-year terms. Election is by
simple majority. Since 1946 deputies have had four-year terms and
must be at least twenty-one years old. The 1946 constitution granted
states with small populations a minimum delegation of seven deputies;
larger states counted one additional deputy for every 150,000 inhabitants
up to 3 million, and after that one for every 250,000. The small
states imposed this system to reverse the dominance of the two largest
states (São Paulo and Minas Gerais) in the Chamber of Deputies
during the Old Republic (1889-1930).
In 1970, at the height of the military
oppression, the balance was tipped in favor of the larger, more
developed, urbanized states. State delegations were calculated based
on the size of the electorate, rather than on population. The minimum
delegation was reduced to three, and most of the states in rural
Brazil had their contingents cut in half. These changes reduced
the Chamber of Deputies to 310 deputies. Ironically, this system
helped the Brazilian Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático
Brasileiro--MDB) elect a 44 percent minority in 1974; thus, in 1978
the military returned to calculations based on population. The 1988
constitution gave Brazil's largest state, São Paulo, seventy
deputies, instead of the 115 it should have to be proportionate
to its population.
Election of federal and state deputies and city council members
is by proportional representation. Brazil uses one of the least-used
variants of proportional representation, the open-list system. Thus,
there is virtually no conflict or competition among parties in the
elections. The conflict is concentrated within each party or coalition
list, and most deputies use their own resources (which may be considerable,
up to US$5 million for a federal deputy) for campaigning. Therefore,
they owe no loyalty to their party, and change labels frequently
after their election (see table 18, Appendix). This produces very
weak parties and low cohesion in Congress. The Workers' Party is
an exception to this rule.
Those holding office (elective or appointive) in the executive
branch who desire to become candidates for elective office must
resign six months before the election. This requirement precludes
a minister, governor, mayor, or state enterprise director from using
the powers and resources of the office to favor his or her election.
The Senate and Chamber of Deputies have legislative initiative.
The Senate and Chamber of Deputies have six and sixteen standing
committees, respectively, plus a joint budget committee. The 1988
constitution gives the committees the power to approve or kill legislation.
To override a committee decision and bring the bill to the floor
of the appropriate house requires a petition signed by a certain
number of members. Once one house passes a bill, the other deliberates
on it. If a different version of the bill is passed, it returns
to the original house for a final vote on the differences. The internal
rules of each house allow members and party leaders certain prerogatives
Party leaders distribute party quotas on committees proportionate
to the party's size. Committee presidencies are apportioned among
the parties on an annual rotational basis; thus, there are no longstanding
powerful committee chairs, as in the United States Congress. There
are no subcommittees, and legislative committees rarely conduct
When a matter is very serious, at least one-third of the respective
house or the full Congress may petition to initiate a CPI (Congressional
Investigating Committee). The CPIs have full subpoena and investigative
powers, such as the disclosure of bank, income tax, telephone, credit
card, and other records. A CPI produced the evidence used to impeach
President Collor in 1992 and uncovered the Budgetgate scandal of
Normally, the Chamber of Deputies has around 50 percent turnover
at each election. In 1990 this figure rose to nearly 60 percent;
in 1994 it returned to 54 percent. In years when two-thirds of the
Senate stands for election and gubernatorial seats are being contested,
turnover can also be high in the upper house (63 percent in 1994).
Senators tend to be older and have more established political careers.
Most have served as federal deputies, and many have been governors.
Deputies usually tend to have served in city councils, state assemblies,
and as state cabinet secretaries. In the first half of the 1990s,
the proportion of deputies elected with no prior political experience
increased. In 1995 the largest contingents in the Chamber of Deputies
by occupation were businessmen, 32 percent; lawyers, 20 percent;
medical doctors, 11 percent; engineers, 7 percent; labor leaders,
6 percent; teachers, 5 percent; economists, 5 percent; public servants,
3 percent; journalists, 3 percent; and administrators, 2 percent.
Each house elects its presiding officers (one president, two vice
presidents, four administrative secretaries, and four alternates)
for two-year terms. The 1987-88 ANC (National Constituent Assembly)
prohibited these legislative officers from being immediately reelected,
a prohibition initially imposed by the military to break up "internal
oligarchies." Traditionally, the largest party in each house
has the prerogative of electing the president, but the PMDB (Brazilian
Democratic Movement Party) was in such disarray in 1993 and 1995
that the Liberal Front Party (Partido da Frente Liberal--PFL), the
second largest party, was able to build a coalition that elected
the Chamber of Deputies president. By negotiation the PMDB returned
to the Chamber presidency for the 1997-98 term, and the PFL won
the Senate presidency for the first time since 1985. The presiding
officers comprise an all-powerful Executive Board, which makes nearly
all important political, administrative, procedural, and agenda-setting
decisions. The Senate president is also the president of the Congress
and presides over joint sessions.
During the 1987-88 ANC, an informal group called the College of
Party Leaders developed. It became an important leadership group
and was the forum for decisive bargaining on crucial articles. This
group has gradually acquired more power (especially agenda-setting)
to the detriment of the formally elected officers, especially in
the Chamber of Deputies.
The political role of Congress began to increase even before the
demise of the military regime. In 1979 President Figueiredo took
office without the extraordinary powers of the Fifth Institutional
Act. In the 1982 elections, the government party lost its absolute
majority in the Chamber of Deputies (see table 19, Appendix), and
in 1983 the Chamber of Deputies defeated Figueiredo's initial decree
laws, including one on social security.
Maximum political power accrued to Congress in 1985, when the vice
president-elect, José Sarney (PMDB-Maranhão), assumed
the presidency under less than auspicious circumstances. From March
1985 through February 1986, Chamber of Deputies President Ulysses
Guimarães (PMDB-São Paulo) and PMDB Senate floor leader
Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PMDB-São Paulo) more or less ruled
with Sarney as informal "prime ministers." Sarney, however,
recovered considerable presidential powers as a result of his cruzado
(for value of the cruzado--see Glossary) economic stabilization
plan, which began on March 1, 1986. Congress again assumed maximum
power in 1992, when Brazil became the first nation in the world
to constitutionally impeach a sitting, directly elected president.
The National Accounts Court (Tribunal de Contas da União--TCU)
is the external control and oversight arm of Congress. The TCU conducts
inspections, usually following newspaper exposés or requests
from members of Congress, and audits the executive branch's annual
accounts. Until the 1988 constitution, the president, with Senate
approval, appointed members to the TCU. Retiring or defeated members
of Congress or friends of the president in need of a sinecure usually
filled the positions. With rare exceptions, TCU members have represented
political factions and groups, and their main role is to protect
allies who have been charged with corruption.
Under the 1988 constitution, recruitment criteria for the TCU became
more specific. The president, with Senate approval, appoints three
of the nine members. Two of the presidential appointees must be
auditors or federal prosecutors from the TCU and must be chosen
from a three-name list prepared by the TCU. Congress chooses the
remaining six members. Each state has a State Accounts Court (Tribunal
de Contas dos Estados--TCE), but only the cities of Rio de Janeiro
and São Paulo have a Municipal Accounts Court (Tribunal de
Contas Municipais--TCM). The accounts of all other municipalities
are reviewed by their respective TCE.
Data as of April 1997