On July 5, the Special Act on the Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program (前瞻基礎建設特別條例) passed a third reading in the legislature after a highly problematic review process. Specifically, the legislature abused procedural rules intended to improve the legislative process. This has highlighted how backward the nation’s legislative culture is.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been promoting legislative reform, with one of its key goals being the establishment of a committee-centric review mechanism. This is because, compared with the past, today’s legislation cover a wider range of subjects. As a result, parliaments in developed countries around the world have come to emphasize the function of specialized committees with knowledge in specific areas in the hope of increasing legislative efficiency and quality.
However, following the passage of the act, it has become clear that the ruling and opposition parties did not learn anything from reviewing the five-day workweek bill. The committee in charge failed to do its job of properly examining the infrastructure bill by almost immediately approving it for cross-caucus negotiations following a rushed one-minute review, which only created more problems.
The committee reviewing the act, which includes 15 articles, had a total of seven meetings to review it. Seven meetings is not a small amount of time. Had the parties been willing to sit down and debate their opinions on the bill in a rational manner, they could have allowed the committee to perform its designed function of properly reviewing the bill and won public support.
However, the ruling party appeared to have no interest in defending its policy and convincing its opponents to consider its view, as it only wanted to railroad the bill through the committee using its majority.
On the other hand, the opposition parties made little effort to offer constructive criticism or suggestions, as they spent the majority of their time occupying the speaker’s podium; when they were not fighting for the podium, they were trying to stall the meeting by raising a ruckus, playing the suona or even throwing flour.
As a result, no discussion on the bill was possible during seven days of meetings, by the end of which it was approved without any revision and submitted to cross-caucus negotiations. It was not only a colossal waste of time, but also a blow to the legislature’s image.
Since the committee failed to properly review the bill, Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) made the exception of allowing the question-and-answer session — which is typically carried out during committee meetings — to be redone during the cross-caucus negotiations. While that might seem to have made sense, it proved that there is substance to previous complaints that cross-caucus negotiations are being allowed to override committee meetings. This is ironic, considering that the DPP has advocated a more committee-centric legislative approach.
According to Article 11 of the Act Governing the Exercise of Legislative Power (立法院職權行使法), a third reading should be held in the meeting following the second reading, unless a member of the committee has proposed doing the third reading immediately after the second reading, with at least 15 committee members seconding the proposal or signing a petition.
This rule was created so that lawmakers would be given time to calm down and re-examine the bill following the second reading, which would enable them to make corrections and revisions before the third, final reading.
However, for many years the legislature has abused the rule and has often carried out the third reading immediately following the second reading. What was designed to be an occasional exception was thus turned into a norm. If the legislature had not carried out the third reading immediately following the second reading when reviewing the infrastructure bill, it might have prevented the mistake of leaving out a sunset clause.
The Executive Yuan has tried to defend the infrastructure act by saying that it is making clear that the program would be divided into two parts, with four years allotted to each part, for a total of eight years, so there is no need for a sunset clause.
However, past legislation on infrastructure, such as the Special Act for Expanding Investment in Public Works to Revitalize the Economy (振興經濟擴大公共建設特別條例) — which is similar to the infrastructure act in nature — and the Special Statute for Increasing Investment in Public Construction (擴大公共建設投資特別條例), all include a sunset clause.
A comparison between the infrastructure act and legislation on similar programs makes it clear that the absence of a sunset clause was a mistake.
It is not news that the legislature often makes poor decisions that lead to unnecessary problems. A few examples include the amendment to the Accounting Act (會計法) that was passed overnight in 2013 and was later found to have left out text, requiring the Cabinet to return it to the legislature for reconsideration; the Road Traffic Management and Penalty Act (道路交通管理處罰條例), which stipulated that “people must wear a helmet when driving a car” in 2006; the 2011 amendment to the Act Governing Food Safety and Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) that stipulated that food companies violating the law must “close” instead of “close down;” and legislation last year regarding US beef imports that banned the import of “cow bones” instead of “cow skulls” due to a typo.
There have been countless examples of the legislature finding its mistakes after the completion of all three readings — all of which could have been avoided by simply adhering to standard legislative procedure.
The party with the legislative majority should understand that the legislature is a place for policy debate, rather than a place to intimidate minority parties with its majority vote. Democracy is not about simply following required procedure, it is about establishing procedural justice.
Efficiency is not the only thing the public expects from the legislature: it is also the job of lawmakers to ensure the quality of legislation and maintain a good, civilized legislative culture. After all, how can a backward legislative culture embody a forward-looking spirit?
Chou Ni-an is a former Taiwan Solidarity Union legislator.
Translated by Tu Yu-an
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