So the parliament building in Budapest is an inhabited ruin — a memorial to a political community that is sometimes defined in cultural, sometimes in legal-political, and sometimes in moral terms. Fine. But since 1989 it’s also the home of the National Assembly, which is the ‘supreme body of State power and popular representation’ in the Republic of Hungary. At least this is what Article 19 of the Constitution says. It is the supreme body of popular representation because it is the only entity in the current political regime that has the right to create and modify laws, which are considered to be expressions of the will of the people.
The creation and modification of laws, I’d like to argue, is another distinct mode of doing politics in a liberal democracy. Unlike the one concerned with drawing the boundaries of the political community, it has hardly anything to do with the past as such. Its temporality is defined more by the legislative process, which begins when an issue takes the shape of a bill, and appears as an electronic document in the Parliament’s Information System called PAIR.
A short detour: there’s a fascinating discussion in STS about issues, and the ways in which they can create their own publics. Noortje Marres has a couple articles on this (see, for example, this one
), and so does Bruno Latour (a good summary of his position is available here
). What I find really interesting is that the formation of issues is largely invisible from the Parliament’s perspective, just as parliaments are largely invisible from most STS scholars’ perspective. Perhaps it is time to rethink the status of hybrid forums (Michel Callon and his colleagues’ term — see Acting in an Uncertain World
) as alternatives to parliaments, and focus instead on the traffic that happens between the two realms.
Back to PAIR. In one of the chapters of my dissertation I examine the Parliament and its Information System as a legislative machine, the main function of which is to turn bills into laws. (Yaron Ezrahi argues the machine is one of the two main metaphors in modern politics — the other being the theatre. See his article here
, and, of course, Andrew Barry’s Political Machines
) In the chapter I make the claim that the operation of this machine is regulated by two documents, the Constitution and the Standing Orders, which can be read as the Users’ Manuals to the legislature. Describing how they work — not as abstract texts, but as ordering devices — helps to understand what kind of politics is enacted by (this version of) the Parliament. So here’s a rough-and-ready reconstruction of the legislative process:
The first phase is the distribution of issues. The Constitution clearly defines who has the right to submit bills to the National Assembly, and the Standing Orders specifies the format these bills have to take. (They need to be addressed to the Speaker, they need to contain a justification, an assessment of social and economic impact, etc.) Once recognised as bills, issues are forwarded to various Standing Committees, which in turn decide whether the bills are suitable for debate. If they are, the so-called House Committee determines the National Assembly’s agenda — this is when bills are distributed not across space but across time.
The second phase is the debate of the bills. It happens in several rounds, and the Standing Committees play an important role in it, but the plenary sittings in the House of Representatives are structured in a way that most discussions occur between the Government and the Opposition. Two main characteristics of the debate are worth emphasising: 1) that it’s a public event, which means people can follow it either in person or on TV and the web, and 2) that it has a time limit. Even the longest and most tedious debates have to come to an end at some point.
The third, and final, phase is decision-making. Again, this happens in more than one round, and some bills require stronger support than others to be approved, but the making of the decision almost always takes the same form: electronic voting. When the Speaker asks the National Assembly to decide the fate of a bill, all MPs in the House of Representatives have to press one of three buttons on their desks: ‘aye’, ‘nay’, ‘abstain’. A moment later the result appears on a large electronic screen, and the Speaker moves on to the next item on the agenda. But this is not the end of the story. Once approved, the text of the proposed law has to be checked by the Legal Department, and signed by the Speaker and the President. The former testifies that the legislative process went according to the rules and procedures laid down in the Standing Orders, and the latter that the text is in harmony with the Constitution.
There’s a lot to be said about the process, and the persons and artefacts that make it possible, from shorthand writers to microphones, but let me briefly summarise what kind of politics is enacted by the legislature. It is defined as a series of public debates that take place in the Parliament. These debates are about well a defined object between the Government and the Opposition, and sooner or later lead to a clear decision. If the decision is positive, a bill becomes a law, which — as I said earlier — is considered to be the expression of the will of the people.
You think this is too thin? Too naive? Too technical? You think real
politics happens elsewhere? In cafes, party meetings, and street demonstrations? I’ll address these concerns in the next post…