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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 16-10-2021 00:01

The case for streamlining Congress

Streamlining Congress would establish criteria of austerity, meritocracy and transparency in the use of human resources, but has not been considered for the past two decades.

Germany’s Parliament has 709 members assisted by around 7,000 employees, of which half form part of the permanent staff of the Bundestag, while the other half come and go with each legislator. According to the data in the 2021 Budget, Argentina’s legislative branch has almost twice the employees of Germany (13,930) with less than half the seats (329). In 2018 the Congressional total was even higher, peaking at 16,196 after former vice-president Amado Boudou incorporated 1,744 employees into the Senate staff in 2014 and 2015, taking it up to 6,081.

According to Argentina’s 2020 Budget, two-thirds of congressional employees are permanent and the others transitory (i.e. their jobs end with the term of the legislator nominating them). Furthermore, legislators may contract aides with a self-employed tax status paying their own social security contributions and not receiving Christmas or mid-year bonuses – in general, these are committee advisors.

With midterms in progress, it may be asked how Argentina’s deputies and senators can implement reforms on a national scale if they cannot put their own house in order. For example, how can Congress analyse and vote on the national budget without considering its own? Information is available which deserves to be debated within discussion of the budget. For example, the Senate offers pretty detailed information on its human resources, permitting their numbers to be identified and debated.

 

Upper house

According to the Senate’s website, last August 4, such information includes, for example, 118 employees in the “Dirección de Automotores” department, when in serious countries only the top authorities have their own car and chauffeur. A further 290 are employed by the “Dirección de Seguridad y Control” while other areas are Staff Administration (89 employees), Communication (72), Institutional Communication (16), Events (46), Maintenance (186), the Malvinas Islands (55), Publications (58), Accountancy (37), Accountancy and Budget (19) Technological Infrastructure (85), General Services (349), Culture (19) and Nursery Co-ordination (47) while 149 are “En Comisión,” 52 with “job being processed” and 67 on “unpaid leave.” 

Among all these people none were affected economically by the pandemic and some even picked up extra jobs. The list even includes six employees in the bizarre category “Radicals – Term Expired.”

The upper house’s 72 senators are also individually assigned 1,493 employees in total or an average of 20 each, to which must be added 207 caucus employees in total, of which over half (105) work for Radical legislators.

 

Lower house

The information on human resources in the Chamber of Deputies is not as transparent as for the Senate – for example, it does not specify to which caucus each employee is assigned. 

Nevertheless, when consulted via email, the lower house’s Oficina de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información Pública replied: “It’s always a great help to receive observations and comments to continue improving work within the Chamber. As for the points mentioned in your email, we inform you that we have taken note of the same and are currently working on them in order to be able to present updated information similar to that presented by the Honourable Senate of the Nation.” 

Even with more cumbersome access, consulting the Chamber of Deputies website last February 25 yielded the information that their staff totals 4,985, of whom 2.617 were permanent, 1,977 transitory, 305 contracted and 86 attached to the Cabinet (the latter based on a resolution early last year whereby the appointment ends with the term of the person they were named to serve). 

The lower house breakdown of employees is similar to the Senate -– Committees (367), Automobiles (139), Culture (70), Maintenance (166), Security and Control (227), Administration and Accountancy (91), Diplomacy and International Cooperation (30); Archives and Publications (30), Computing System (100), Planning and Dissemination (67), Human Resources (126), Child Care ( 62) and General Services (289).

The employees assigned to the deputies total 2,225 or an average of 8,5 each. Of some 14,000 Congress employees, 3,718 are thus assigned to the national legislators, representing 26 percent of the total. If that is compared with Germany, it stands out that there is at least 50 percent overmanning among Argentine Congress employees, even with half the legislators of the Bundestag.

 

Excessive

The excessive number of Congress employees is a problem going a long way back. Between 1900 and 1930, when the total of Congress employees did not reach 500, the socialist deputies (and a few Radicals) questioned their excessive numbers. 

For example, socialist Enrique Dickmann pointed out that “bringing in employees for their political commitments is neither fair nor convenient”while his party comrade Nicolás Repetto justified the need to fire Congress staff by affirming: “I believe that the worthwhile men made redundant will find an opportunity to apply their skills, if they have them, or to develop new ones in far nobler occupations than this.”

Back then the Senate was already the target of the main criticisms. In 1914 the socialist deputy Antonio de Tomaso said: “The Senate budget is one of the lushest in this administration, paying the highest salaries with the most arbitrary appointments and the most parasites. And I call parasites those employees whose job description nobody understands and who do not perform any useful, clear, concrete nor specific tasks.” 

You only have to read the departments and the number of employees in the current Senate to understand that what De Tomaso said over a century ago still holds good. 

A reform to make Congress more transparent implies modernising it and ending its privileges, which will generate the resistance of the trade unions and politicians of the old style. But the same could be said throughout almost the entire national administration requiring reform, hence the importance of beginning in the house of democracy itself, in Congress. 

Following the 1994 constitutional reform and the adoption of some laws, new organisms were created within Congress. Only one of them, the Budget Office, is filled on the basis of competitive examinations and it has 18 people. What is established in Article 16 of the National Constitution and Article 21.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – namely, the principles of aptitude and equality before the law – has not been applied to entry into Congress permanent staff.

One meritocratic department within Congress is Parliamentary Information, dependent on the Chamber of Deputies with 39 permanent employees. You can entrust to them a comparative report on human resources in different parliaments, criteria for entry into permanent staff and the allotment of resources to legislators, including their aides. Meanwhile they could start by freezing the vacancies in permanent staff, as is done in Chile, establishing that from now on all the posts of this kind be covered by competitive examination on the basis of an objective profile. 

Following the Australian example, Congress should establish mechanisms to prevent nepotism because there exists a tradition unacceptable from any republican perspective to designate direct relatives, both of the legislators and senior staff. 

“How am I not going to give my son a job,” affirmed quite shamelessly a veteran official of the Chamber of Deputies, already retired, when consulted about the staff under his administrative area. 

All the generosity at the taxpayer’s expense must be ended, eliminating the subsidies, scholarships and pensions, sources of political patronage. The existence of a Congress printing-press must be questioned, already dubbed a “Trojan horse” by socialist deputies at the time of its creation, finding out how many parliaments have something similar, especially in this digital era with environmental questioning. The same goes for the army of typists, designed for other times, because now you can tape and then simply have the staff to transcribe the sessions and the committee meetings.

If a reform implying a more rational assignment of Congress resources cannot be implemented, it is difficult to think that the rest of the country’s administration can be modernised. But as Dickmann sagely observed over a century ago: “It would be much easier to stage a revolution than to cut an employee out of the national budget.”

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Gabriel C. Salvia

Gabriel C. Salvia

Director-General of CADAL - www.cadal.org

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