I have been following the variety of opinions expressed in the press consequent on the final decision of the acting Chief Justice Ian Chang concerning the autonomy of the National Assembly in relation to the budget debates. There seem to have been many words written on what the National Assembly cannot do in relation to the budget estimates presented by the Minister of Finance. I suggest that a broader reading of articles in the national constitution together with the Standing Orders of the National Assembly will show that there is really no problem.
Article 9 of the main text of the Constitution of Guyana 1980 says that “The rules and orders of the existing Assembly . . . shall . . . be the rules of procedure of the National Assembly . . . but shall be construed with such modifications, adaptations, qualifications and exceptions as may be necessary to bring them into conformity with the Constitution.”
James Pender, parliamentary staff advisor provided by the Commonwealth Secretariat, wrote on ‘legislation’ and on ‘appropriation bills and financial procedures’ in his advisory papers numbers 4 and 5 for the National Assembly in 2005-6. Mr Pender proposed simplification of the budget debate and procedures and noted that relevant changes in Standing Orders would require parallel changes in the constitution. However, he gave no indication that the Standing Orders might be in conflict with the national constitution.
The current set of Standing Orders were approved by the National Assembly on May 2, 2006 when the PPP/C had a working majority. I have not found any indication that the PPP/C objected to those Standing Orders on the grounds that they did not match the Constitution of Guyana. Nor did the PPP/C apparently note any conflict with parliamentary Standing Orders when passing the 2003 revision to the constitution.
The relevant article in the Schedule to the national constitution for the debate on budget estimates is number 171. The much-cited Article 218 just deals with the Appropriations Bills following budget debates.
Article 171 (1) says that “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution and of the rules of procedure of the National Assembly, any member of the Assembly may introduce any Bill or propose any motion for debate in, or may present any petition to, the Assembly and the same shall be debated and disposed of according to the rules of procedure of the Assembly.” So the budget debate is according to the Standing Orders; that is explicit.
Article 171 (2) then says that “Except on the recommendation or with the consent of the Cabinet signified by a Minister, the Assembly shall not – (a) proceed upon any Bill (including any amendment to a Bill) which, in the opinion of the person presiding, makes provision for any of the following purposes – (i) for imposing or increasing any tax; (ii) for imposing any charge upon the Consolidated Fund or any other public fund of Guyana or for altering any such charge otherwise than by reducing it . . .” So the National Assembly cannot without cabinet/ministerial agreement impose a tax or increase a tax. Nor can it change any proposed use of the Consolidated Fund tax other than by reducing the amount of the proposed use. But Article 171 (a) (ii) allows the Assembly to reduce proposed expenditure from the Consolidated Fund even if the cabinet/minister disagrees.
Bills which are contentious are passed after the first reading to a committee stage as a conventional way of not blocking the plenary sessions of the National Assembly with detailed debate better handled in smaller groups of MPs and technical advisers. The budget debate is in principle no different from the management of any other Bill passing through the legislature.
The Committee of Supply, resolved from the plenary National Assembly as a whole, is a reflection of the importance of the budget as the ultimate lever of control of the legislature over the executive in tripartite Jeffersonian government. The committee system moves the debate away from the constraints of ambiguities in Article 171 of the national constitution into the self-governing sphere of the National Assembly, as approved by Article 9 of the constitution. Standing Orders 71 and 72 in Chapter XI – Financial Procedures – cover the budget process. Only after the give-and-take and adjustments made in the Committee of Supply does the final version of the budget revert for vote to the National Assembly in plenary (Standing Orders 71 (4)) after the minister’s motion (Standing Order 71 (1)) has been amended (Standing Order 71 (5)) and the motion put to the vote without further debate.
The Minister (of Finance) can then introduce the Appropriation Bill under Article 218 (2) of the constitution: “When the estimates of expenditure . . . have been approved by the Assembly a Bill, to be know[n] as an Appropriation Bill, shall be introduced in the Assembly, providing for the issue from the Consolidated Fund of the sums necessary to meet that expenditure . . .”
In other words, all the serious debate and horse-trading takes place in the Committee of Supply without needing to consider the convoluted wording of Article 171 – which deals with both Bill and motion but not in a congruent manner. Standing Orders 73-76 provide detailed instruction for the management of the debate by line items, including provision for motions to increase or decrease the sums allotted in the estimates.
Read in this sequence, the Constitution of Guyana and the Standing Orders of the National Assembly provide no barrier to the management of the budget debate line-by-line in the same manner as in almost all democratic and semi-democratic countries. The appeal by the PPP/C to the High Court thus appears to be based on misreadings of what the law and Standing Orders actually prescribe. Of course it would be preferable to have a less convoluted and more conventionally worded national constitution, but that is another matter.