Brazil grapples with dysfunctional Congress

April 10, 2013

The YouTube video of Marcos Feliciano, a Brazilian evangelical pastor and federal congressman, would be funny were it not so tragic.

In it, the preacher derides a member of his congregation for giving him a credit card without the PIN number during collection time.

“This is the last time I’ll say it, Samuel de Souza gave his card but not the password. That doesn’t count,” he scowls, as other brethren hand in checks for 500 to 1,000 real ($250 to $500) and even a motorbike.

Yet bullying churchgoers out of their change is the least of Feliciano’s sins. The lawmaker, who was recently appointed the new head of the Congress’s human rights commission, is fighting for his political survival after comments he made on Twitter describing Africans as a “race cursed by Noah” and being gay as a “cancer.”

For Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who must urgently push through reforms to revive flagging economic growth — the rate slipped below 1 percent last year — the controversy raging over Feliciano highlights the complexity of dealing with a Congress that is hostage to diverse interest groups that can shift alliances at any moment.

It is a Congress in which the fox is often in charge of the henhouse — corruption suspects can dominate the debate on tax and finances, soy and cattle farmers weigh in on the environment, and men convicted of graft have a say on issues of justice.

“It’s a very dysfunctional organization. One always wonders how Dilma gets anything through,” said Riordan Roett of Johns Hopkins University.

Aside from Feliciano’s, other commissions headed or manned by proverbial “foxes” include the tax and finances committee, whose new chief, Joao Magalhaes, is on trial in the Supreme Court for alleged corruption. He is contesting the charges.

The commission for the constitution, justice and citizenship includes among its members two “mensaleiros” — men convicted but not yet jailed pending final appeal in the biggest corruption case in Brazilian history, the Mensalao, or big monthly payment. The pair, Jose Genoino and Joao Paulo Cunha, senior members of the ruling Workers’ Party, were found guilty of vote-buying in Congress.

The new head of the Senate commission for the environment is Brazil’s so-called “King of Soy,” Blairo Maggi, a farmer whose earlier support for clearing the Brazilian Amazon earned him Greenpeace’s Golden Chainsaw award in 2005. He has since made an about-turn, organizing a moratorium on soy bought from illegally deforested land. But he still attracts plenty of opposition from environmentalists.

“We cannot admit such gross negligence, such an affront to our intelligence,” said a petition against his appointment on the Web site Avaaz. He countered in an interview in the newspaper O Globo that radical greens wanted Brazilians “to live in the trees, eating coconuts, like Adam and Eve.”

To be sure, Brazil’s commissions are nowhere near as powerful as the congressional committees in the United States. The parliamentary agenda is decided by a smaller group of congressional party leaders rather than the commissions.

But they are symbolic of the powerful interest groups at work in Brazilian politics that often cross party lines. To garner their support, Brazilian presidents usually try to include as many parties as possible in their cabinets. At last count, Rousseff had 17 parties in her coalition and has appointed as many as 40 ministers. By contrast, Mexico’s president has 15 ministers in his cabinet.

Even with these grand alliances, Rousseff cannot assure the loyalty of Congress. Her attempt to make a new forest code more environmentally friendly was defeated last year by the Congress’s rural bloc. This year, she lost a battle over the distribution of oil royalties among the states as Congress members voted along regional lines.

“Congressmen owe loyalty to the president to some extent, but they also owe loyalty to their factions and to their governors and mayors. It’s a multiple-deity system,” said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.

Still, Brazil’s Congress is not as unproductive as it may seem. It passed 787 bills, constitutional amendments and other measures last year. The present U.S. Congress, by contrast, had passed only 219 bills as of December.

Controversies such as the one over Feliciano do not stop the laws going through, but they do little for Congress’s sullied reputation among Brazilians. The pastor’s most recent antics include describing opposition party members as “guided by Satan” and asking police to imprison a protester.

Yet in one positive sign for Brazilian politics, his days may be numbered as opposition against him grows inside and outside Congress. He said of the errant churchgoer who did not provide the credit card password: “Later he’ll ask God for a miracle, and God won’t provide it and he’ll say God is bad.”

If the protesters have their way, it will be Feliciano who needs the miracle to save his political career.

— Financial Times

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