The desks in Lebanon’s parliament must have very deep drawers. They house numerous draft laws submitted to the chamber in recent years, which, without serious changes to the way parliament functions, will likely sit there for years to come.
Locked away in parliament are draft laws to protect women from domestic violence, ban smoking in public and make Lebanon’s roads and food safer, among others.
On paper, the legislative process is relatively straightforward. The constitution says draft laws can originate either in the cabinet or parliament, though to become law, parliament must approve them.
Typically, draft laws are written and approved by the cabinet and then sent to parliament, Randa Antoun, a professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, said. Parliamentary committees and the chamber as a whole should discuss and vote on a draft law in a process that legally should take one month, Change and Reform Bloc MP Ghassan Moukheiber told NOW Lebanon.
Once draft laws reach parliament, however, they often languish for any number of reasons.
The cabinet, for example, is a reflection of the parliament in that the largest political blocs are represented, so it would stand to reason that if the cabinet can agree to approve a draft law, the parliament should be able to do the same, argued Omar Abdel Samad, a researcher with Nahwa Al-Muwatiniya, an NGO that monitors parliament.
However, that is frequently not the case. Municipal electoral law reform, for example, was approved by the cabinet, yet parliament sat on it until it was too late to implement before polling started on May 2.
“For them it’s a playground,” Abdel Samad said.
Dany Haddad, a senior researcher with the Lebanese Transparency Association, told NOW Lebanon that part of the problem is a “conflict of interest” enshrined in the constitution. The document stipulates that an MP can become a minister, which blurs the lines between the two bodies and allows the legislative process to be more easily politically manipulated, he said.
Once a draft law reaches parliament, it often gets kicked around like a ball, from committee to committee, Abdel Samad and fellow researcher Tala Itani said. Further, committee meetings and votes are secret, and non-members can only attend by invitation.
Abdel Samad said that during the municipal election law reform debate, a member of parliament’s Justice and Administration Committee invited a civil society activist, who was ultimately not allowed in because the committee’s chair did not issue the invitation.
Parliament itself is “dysfunctional, ineffective and inefficient,” Moukheiber said. The chamber is understaffed – the Law Committee primarily responsible for legislative work has only three members, for example – and both MPs and staffers rarely stay in the office past 1:30 p.m., he added.
Echoing the comments of the other sources interviewed for this article, Moukheiber also said parliamentary committees rarely coordinate, so the same points of a draft law are debated ad nauseam without action being taken. Moukheiber said drafts typically go before three committees before reaching the parliament as a whole.
There was a practice instituted by Speaker Nabih Berri to hold meetings of chairpersons and vice chairs of committees once every two weeks to coordinate their work, Moukheiber said. “A few such meetings happened, but it has not been systematic, and it is not [an official] part of [parliament’s bylaws].”
Draft laws are only supposed to stay with parliament for one month, but “nobody heeds” this time limit, he said.
Both politicians and the public, Moukheiber and other sources interviewed argued, are more concerned with MPs attending social events like weddings and funerals or lending help to individual voters – such as finding them jobs – than producing quality legislation.
“Legislative work is undervalued,” he said.
Developing a culture that reveres lawmaking will, of course, take time. In the interim, Moukheiber said that fixing parliament is one way to start. Hiring more staffers who are better trained in the legislative process would help, and Moukheiber is drafting a law to re-vamp parliament’s bylaws.
A first part of that law, which strengthens parliament’s oversight capabilities, was already sent to the chamber.
“We submitted it in 2006, and it’s been sleeping in the drawer since then,” Moukheiber said.