Two legislative battles made world news this week, though they took place an ocean apart and over very different issues. While both involved a degree of political stage management and lawmakers meeting in special sessions, one was dismissed derisively; the other admired for its inspiration. Unfortunately for Taiwan, it was our lawmakers who drew the sneers.
Taiwan’s “notoriously unruly” lawmakers, as Bloomberg TV labeled them, battled on Tuesday, as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators fought to occupy the podium to ensure passage of some controversial bills. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Taiwan Solidarity Union legislators wanted the podium to protest the signing of the cross-strait service trade agreement. Each side had shown up hours before, prepared for brawling, donning their colored vests to distinguish friend from foe in the scrum.
Over in Austin, Texas, Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat, showed up on Wednesday dressed for battle in pink Mizuno running shoes, prepared to stand for 13 hours to filibuster a Republican bill that would have effectively closed most of the abortion clinics in the state. The Democrats had picked the 50-year-old because she had had her first child at 19, made it through Harvard Law School as a single mother, won election as a liberal in a conservative county and filibustered a budget bill in 2011.
Under the rules of the Texas Senate, Davis was not allowed to sit, lean against her desk, take bathroom breaks, eat, drink or go “off topic” and could only stop speaking when listening to questions. In Taiwan, despite several complaints of physical injuries — a bite mark, pulled hair and a back injury — lawmakers never needed to show the same kind of physical stamina as their Texan counterpart.
Davis lasted almost 11 hours before a procedural move broke her filibuster, while Taiwan’s lawmakers were deadlocked for about half that time. Davis succeeded in delaying a vote on the bill she was fighting — although Texas’ governor was quick to announce that a second special session would begin on Monday, so the bill could be taken up once again. The 64 KMT lawmakers ended up passing the bills they wanted to and a second extra session is a foregone conclusion for the remaining legislation.
Davis is being hailed as a heroine for her willingness to stand up, literally, for her convictions, while few people appear impressed by the antics in Taipei, or think that they count for much.
Maybe it is because such fisticuffs have been seen so often that they have lost their shock value. Maybe it is because in Taiwan, lawmakers’ actions appear dictated more by party politics than personal conviction. Or perhaps it is because the Legislative Yuan has, with exceedingly rare exceptions, served to merely rubber-stamp the KMT’s proposals or policies, whether they be under the current government, the DPP administration or the former authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, the KMT has always been far removed from the average Taiwanese.
While Cabinet members are often subjected to harsh grilling during legislative question-and-answer sessions, for the most part the KMT government still gets its way with legislation. It might give way in little things — such as reversing itself on the ludicrous amendment to the Accounting Act (會計法) that had won approval in a closed-door meeting of the caucuses. However, for the really important issues, ones that will impact every Taiwanese and those yet to come, lawmakers of any stripe are increasingly ineffective, be it over the use of nuclear power plants, education or cross-strait ties.
After visiting the Legislative Yuan this week, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) said it was better to have bickering lawmakers shoving and pushing each other than to have “someone driving a tank to storm the streets.” That is very true. However, it would be better still to have a legislature that was actually worthy of the name.