Speaker Raphael Trotman yesterday proposed guidelines to preserve the National Assembly’s right to amend budget estimates, in the face of a recent court ruling that declared that its power is restricted to either giving or withholding approval.
Ahead of the start of the consideration of estimated spending, Trotman an-nounced his proposal for the establishment of a sub-committee of the Committee of Supply to consider changes to the budget.
“The purpose of this Committee will be to examine proposals for amendments and to find consensus or agreement where possible, and thereafter to report to the Committee of Supply,” the Speaker’s proposed guidelines, which were circulated in the House yesterday, state. “At the end of this exercise the Chairman of the Committee will put the question that the Estimates be reported to the National Assembly. The Hon Minister of Finance will report
to the Assembly his government’s opinion on the estimates if ‘amended’. Ultimately, the Appropriation Bill will be the Hon Minister’s Bill, and not the National Assembly’s, and the complaint of the intrusion of the National Assembly into the executive’s domain will be obviated,” it adds.
The Committee of Supply’s sub-committee would have no less than seven members, with four members from the opposition and three from the government, and with the Speaker as chair.
Trotman acknowledged the ongoing disagreement over the constitutionality of the National Assembly’s power to amend the budget, in wake of cuts led by the opposition majority in both 2012 and 2013 to the tune of roughly $20 billion and $31.3 billion, respectively. Following a legal challenge to the budget cuts mounted by the government, acting Chief Justice Ian Chang ruled this year that the National Assembly acted “unlawfully and unconstitutionally” by effecting cuts to the 2012 budget estimates.
According to Justice Chang, while the Assembly may approve or not approve the Finance Minister’s estimates of expenditure, it has no power to change them by either reducing or increasing them.
Trotman, who has appealed the decision, made a point of registering the National Assembly’s respect for opinions of the High Court, provided that the independence of the National Assembly is not impinged. However, he maintained that the decision does not and cannot affect the National Assembly’s procedures for treating with the budget estimates. “It should be noted that no stay of execution of the High Court’s decision has been applied for. This is simply because I am of the considered opinion that the National Assembly cannot recognise a right in the High Court to fetter or restrict its activities. Implicit in an application for a stay of execution is the belief that the Court’s orders and directions are binding on the National Assembly. As such an application for a stay of execution would be unsound and harmful as it would admit to a jurisdiction that is non-existent,” he noted.
He also pointed to the Article 165 of the Constitution, which provides for the National Assembly, subject to the provisions of the constitution, to regulate its own procedure and make its own rules towards this end. “No court can interfere with or fetter this right. This right has been universally recognised and upheld even in the High Court of Guyana in the 1963 case of Jagan et al -v- Gajraj. For this reason I utterly reject the notion that the National Assembly can act unlawfully in the exercise of its functions as prescribed above,” he said.
It is the Standing Orders (SO) of the National Assembly, Trotman offered, which regulates “the practices and procedures applied and adhered to for all matters coming before the National Assembly; including of course the review and approval of the Estimates of Expenditure.” (SO 76  stipulates that “an amendment to any Head of Expenditure to reduce the sum allotted thereto in respect of any item therein may be moved by any Member” of the National Assembly.)
“The National Assembly must be allowed to settle its own procedure in keeping with the constitutional mandate contained in Article 165, and the protection from interference guaranteed in Article 172 of the Constitution. The National Assembly has determined that a Committee of Supply shall be the means through which it analyses the Estimates of expenditure. This is in keeping with its right to formulate its own procedure in accordance with the provisions of Article 165 of the Constitution,” he said.
Trotman noted that the Minister of Finance submits the estimates for consideration to the Committee of Supply, and the Committee of Supply, when finished, hands them back to the minister. He said it was “critical” to note that when the Committee of Supply considers the estimates and “approves” of them, whether after making “amendments” in accordance with Standing Order 76 or by the process of not-approvals of line items, this function does not constitute the “approval” function required by the Constitution in Article 218. “The approval is only given in the first instance by the Assembly when the Hon Minister of Finance reports to the plenary of the National Assembly that the Committee of Supply has considered the estimates and then goes on to ask the National Assembly to approve the report of the Committee… It is at this stage, and at no other, that the National Assembly fulfils the constitutional function of approving the estimates as provided for in Article 218. The approval of the estimates by the Committee of Supply cannot be meant to be the approval contemplated by the Constitution because a Committee of the National Assembly has no power or authority to bind the National Assembly,” he reasoned.
It is in this context that Trotman argued that when the Committee of Supply makes “amendments” to the estimates, there is “nothing unlawful or unconstitutional” about its actions. “If indeed the Committee of Supply has made amendments (which are in essence proposals for changes to the estimates) then it is the duty of the Hon Minister of Finance to indicate to the National Assembly whether the Government wishes time to consider the “amendments” before the Speaker puts the Motion to the National Assembly for their adoption. The Government is also within its right to either accept the amendments or to reject them en toto,” he said, while noting that the National Assembly is ever mindful of the fact that the separation of powers doctrine must be strictly adhered to.