Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reform Proposals

I've written, in this and other posts, about the scandal currently exploding in Britain, involving improper expense reimbursement claims by members of the British Parliament.

One interesting by-product of that, is that British politicians are rushing out proposals to reform their political system.

The proposals include:

  1. A fixed term for the House of Commons, which would abolish the prime minister's right to set the date of a general election.

  2. An elected upper house of Parliament, in place of the current House of Lords. Originally, membership in that body was based on hereditary titles. Now, most members of the House of Lords are, in effect, appointed by the party leaders.

  3. Increased ability of backbenchers to introduce legislation in the House of Commons.

In Britain, members of the Cabinet also serve in one of the houses of Parliament. That is not true of the U.S. Cabinet and Congress. Members of the U.K. House of Commons ("MPs") who are not either Cabinet secretaries, or assistants to those secretaries ("ministers") are called "backbenchers". Cabinet secretaries and ministers sit on the front benches on their party's side of the House of Commons chamber. As the title implies, the backbenchers sit behind them.

Backbenchers can introduce legislation, but only under strict limitations. Most policy proposals come from the front benches.

The proposals listed above would make Britain's system more similar to that of the U.S. (Others, such as proportional representation, would not.) Should they take a closer look at American politics, and be more careful what they ask for?

One obvious thing about these suggested changes is that they have nothing directly to do with reform of the expense reimbursement system.

As I understand it, the indirect argument for reform is as follows. The balance of power has shifted further toward the government, and away from backbench MPs, in recent times. Therefore, it has become more difficult to justify higher salaries for those MPs who do not have government positions. It has been alleged that that led to a system that sneaks additional compensation into MPs pockets, via a loosely-administered expense-reimbursement system. If MPs are made more important again, their compensation can be more above-board.

A more cynical explanation is that the politicians are trying to distract voters' attention from the specific issue, and to portray themselves as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Either way, some of the proposed changes might have far-reaching effects. I wrote here about the danger of grafting aspects of other countries' political systems onto one's own. That can produce unintended effects.

One side note: The British cast their votes today for the European Parliament. Those returns will be watched closely, for an indication of how upset the electorate is with the governing Labor Party. But the results will not be known until Sunday. Each European Union member state votes on its usual election day, which is Thursday in the U.K., but is Sunday in most of those countries. Those countries voting before Sunday are not allowed to release their results until everyone has voted.

1 comment:

Terry L. Johnson said...

there is some great commentary on this in the past two editions of the economist.

also: my understanding is that shortly, all mp's expense statements will be posted on line.

that alone will suffice, in my opinion.