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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Committee Anarchy Blunts Duma's Effectiveness

If you were a member of the State Duma, the lower house and legislative workhorse of the parliament, what political niche would you want to carve out?


Perhaps a chair on the international affairs committee, where the atmosphere tends toward high diplomacy, not to mention frequent trips abroad. Or the geopolitics committee, an ill-defined body created at the whim of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and stacked with members of his Liberal Democratic Party -- where deputies muse over the grand themes of history and the currents of world power. Or maybe the ever-popular budget committee, which handles the heady business of divvying up the money.


For most deputies, the choice is theirs. Although the Duma has rules governing how committee seats are allocated, deputies cheerfully ignore them, instead seeking the committees that suit them best from the menu of 28. Analysts say this has hampered the Duma's effectiveness as a lawmaking body.


"The general theory behind committees is that they are a way for the legislature to divide labors. But you want each committee to be a little legislature [representative of the whole]," said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and an expert on the U.S. Congress,


The Duma has rules that call for proportional committee representation. But a blas? disregard for those rules has left committees unbalanced in favor of one or another party, twisting them from representative legislative workshops into political fiefdoms.


Instead of reaching a consensus at the committee level -- which is what committees are used for in Western parliaments -- partisan committees put forward one-sided bills that are quickly slapped down by the full Duma.


The best example is the committee for agricultural affairs, which handles the all-important matter of land rights. Nineteen of the 20 seats are held by Communists or their allies. Since the founding of the Duma in 1993, the committee has struggled unsuccessfully to adopt a sweeping bill on land.


"If a committee puts forth a bill that basically serves one interest -- if the committee on agriculture puts out bills that are total agrarian lobby bills -- they're either going to have to cut a deal or watch that bill go down," said a Western expert on the Duma, who asked not to be identified. "That's part of the problem with the land code. There's only one voice in that committee. And only now, years later, have other factions said, 'We're only going to let this thing go if you make changes.'"


In Western parliaments, well-developed parties, or coalitions of parties, enforce order. But Russian political parties have less control over their members. Asked why their deputies don't follow the rules, spokesmen for the Yabloko and Our Home Is Russia parties reacted with a horror usually reserved for discussions on human rights violations.


"Really, can you tell someone who wants to be on the budget committee, and who understands financial matters well, that he must go to the committee on sport, even if he knows nothing about that? That would be a form of violence," said Aleksei Margun of Our Home's Duma faction.


"If you're from the Agrarian Party, then you have made promises to your electorate, and you want to be where you can deal with issues important to them. Our Home, in turn, is the party of the government. For us, the budget is question No. 1."


U.S. Congress members also try for seats on committees important to their constituents. But unlike in the Duma, the parties decide. "Committees can only be expanded by agreement, by a majority vote," Ornstein said, although he added that even that did not work perfectly. "It's not as healthy as you'd like, but inevitably we have an interior committee that's made up mostly of westerners, an agricultural committee that's mostly members from rural areas, a labor committee from urban areas, and so on."


Yabloko and Our Home members have sought seats on the budget and foreign affairs committees, abandoning others to their opponents. In doing so, they have swelled the budget committee, chaired by Yabloko, to 49 members, in cheerful violation of the 35-member ceiling. The geopolitics committee, meanwhile -- the brainchild of the author of such world-view works as "The Last Lunge to the South" -- is dominated by Zhirinovsky's party.


The Communists have tried to earn political capital from committee demographics. A report prepared by Oleg Shenkarev, coordinator of the party's Duma faction, notes that they have been granted commanding majorities on the committees for veterans affairs, culture and education, and science, to name a few. "A whole row of problems, it has become clear, worry only the Communists," Shenkarev wrote.