The role of legislature in democracy

By Sunday Iduh

Any system of Government built on the foundation of the Rule of Law and Democracy must consist of three great arms: the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. This division of labour strengthens the supremacy of the Rule of Law in any society.

The doctrine of Separation of Powers advocates the independent exercise of these three governmental arms with constitutional functions by different bodies, without interference, control or domination, by one on the other or others.

One salient point that needs to be emphasized, is that there can be no perfect separation of powers in which there is no interaction whatsoever between the three great arms of government. Indeed, they all function or should function by mutual co-operation for the development of the society. It is the executive, for instance, that is charged with the enforcement of judicial orders. The doctrine simply means that the same body or individual should not be in control of more than one arm.

When reference is made to democratic governance, be it parliamentary or presidential, the organ of government that appeals mostly to the mind as epitomizing the concept is the legislature. A lot of people have said it is the arm through which the public sees democracy in action, in form of debates and consideration of motions, resolutions, and bills among others.

The closest politician to the voter is the representative of a constituency in the legislature. The most significant phenomenon in a democratic set-up is to see the legislature; the Assemblies of the people’s representatives in action.

In the views of John S. Mill, it is the duty of the legislature to “watch and control the government (executive); to throw the light of publicity in its acts, to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which anyone considers questionable.” If adequately discharged, the legislature’s critical function would produce an attitude of responsibility and restraint in the executive, which would oblige it to contend with the possible reaction of the legislature in framing policies and taking decisions.

For the Legislature to play the role effectively its hands must be clean and the House must be in order. A corrupt and self-seeking Legislature will not have the credibility and authority to carry out its role as the watch dog of the people. Presently in this country, it is the press that seems to be playing this role even though it has faltered on many fronts.

Of particular importance is the legislature’s role in shaping the budget and appropriations. The Appropriation Bill is the basis of the Executive’s plans for the running of government within a specific fiscal year. The Constitution provides that the budget must be scrutinized by the legislature and the appropriation bill passed, before money can be withdrawn from the relevant account for government activities.

The legislature can give conditions and place limitation on government spending, and how funds are to be used, such as details on what may be spent under specific items. For example, travel, purchase of cars and general spending under different heads. After all, the Constitution provides that the estimates and heads of expenditure for the financial year shall be included in the Appropriation Bill laid before the legislature.

However, the legislature cannot introduce matters or issues outside the ones contained in the appropriation bill presented to the House. The Constitution makes it clear that the initiative for the preparation and presentation of the appropriation bill is that of the President or a Governor.

It is the executive, who will execute and administer the contents of the budget and not the National Assembly or State Houses of Assembly as the case may be. Nothing, however prevents consultation between the Legislature and the Executive on the contents of an appropriation bill. The important role of the Legislature in budgetary matters can be demonstrated by the fact that non-implementation of the budget is always a major ground for disagreement between the legislature and the executive.

The Legislature in any democratic system of government is supposed to be the watch dog of the people against the authoritarian and indeed predatory tendencies of the executive which, is the most powerful arm of government, given its ability to control and deploy state funds and coercive forces.

The legislature is supposed to check these tendencies and to generally operate to protect the interest of the people. They are supposed to be the grass-roots arm of government.

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