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Fine tune the executive presidency for post-war growth

The executive presidency that proved to be an incomparable asset for fighting terror could be an equally potent vehicle for rapid development during peace times.

Former Constitutional Affairs Minister K.N. Choksy P.C. put it succinctly: “the institution should not be abolished in a hurry. The powers attached to the Office could be reconsidered and modified where necessary.” Fine-tuning the executive presidency must consider Parliament’s oversight responsibilities or the failure thereof, which had been ignored by those calling for the abolition of the executive presidency rather off-handedly.

Oversight has been designed in France and the US through processes that had worked well.

Funding authority for oversight

It is vital that Parliament is made to carve out processes for ensuring that allocations are well planned, executed and in fact checked for compliance with Parliamentary directives. That must be considered in any proposal to amend the constitution.

Some of the existing committees could be elevated and given more muscle to carry out that task.

K.N. Choksy P.C.

Efforts to democratise the executive through a more broad-based governance mechanism could begin by introducing a broader parliamentary committee system and an open vote on all legislative enactments containing appropriations.

Ability to vote money is the supreme power Parliament has. That needed to be carried out in a manner that eliminates the so called ‘majoritism’ associated with the party system which is the current basis for electing Members of Parliament.

It should not weaken the executive either if sufficient dialogue were forthcoming between the legislature and the executive during the committee stage.

In both parliamentary and executive presidency, the root cause of one-sided governance is the fact that once a majority is found after the elections, party whips will not allow a free vote to its members-because that would be fatalistic for the party in power to lose a vote on a crucial Bill. If at the Committee deliberations a conscientious dissent is allowed when a Bill is first considered, then that decision could be transmitted to the full House at which time strict party vote could be demanded.

During the deliberations of the Committee there would be greater give and take as the government is not risking its very existence on the outcome of the committee vote.

That way all Bills would be considered on merit and members could compromise on grounds of feasibility of the legislative proposal, its applicability, etc. Amendments could be voted in to delete or add on new provisions. Even the details of the money allotted could be spelled out elaborately as to prevent abuses once its leaves the control of the House.

If fact when J.R. Jayewardene proposed the executive presidency, he had reportedly predicted that the system would work better with a President from one party and the Prime Minister from another. That did not materialise during the Kumaratunga Presidency with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.

The missing link happened to be the free vote and a committee apparatus - in other words a prerequisite for compromise did not exist the way the 1978 Constitution was drafted.

No give and take

The crux of the matter is that compromises need to be worked through a non-competing legislative atmosphere. Once a committee is ready to recommend changes to a Bill it could be sent back to the President’s legislative counsel for review and that way a better product comes out of the whole legislative effort.

In the US, the House and the Senate there is a procedure for the same Bill to be approved with some major changes. A joint session of the Senate and the House then go over it to bring out a workable compromise. That is happening now as the Obama Healthcare Bill that was approved last week by the House. It would then go to the Senate which may add or delete parts of it. A joint session of the Congress then fine tunes it.

Second Chamber

May be a Second Chamber might be looked into as a legislative oversight stop-over prior to formal votes being cast in Parliament.

That could also attract a group of knowledgeable legislators from among those disinclined to face the vagaries of electoral campaigning. Senate could be the final check point for better counsel. Its composition has to be crafted with those lofty goals in mind-if we ever want to take that rout.

Executive presidency can be made to work with number of these processes, if adequate thought is given to making the governance a critical issue and not whether we should abolish the executive presidency and go back to the old system based on some whim. It was that system which caused the one party rule so dictatorially unacceptable in the first place.

It was frequently chanted then that governance under a Prime Minister was nothing but a one party dictatorship for five years.

We have an executive presidency which is not based on the strict theory of the separation of powers but something in between when we abolished the British system which had combined Legislative and executive functions. The hotchpotch may need some revising.

Only remedy for misuse of executive power is impeachment which is near impossible to achieve. The US system has provided for greater degree of give and take between the executive and the legislature through what is known as the Congressional committees and public hearings.

Some of the key elements of what would ensue as the country grapples with the form of governance were taken up here. This is no frivolous matter to be left to the fanciful inclination of political campaigns but for careful consideration in view of the proven suitability of the executive presidency in the context of the security threats.

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