The monsoon session of Parliament, which concluded on
August 11, once again highlighted the low attendance of its members. On a
few occasions, the two Houses, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, had
to be adjourned without conducting their business because of the absence of MPs. But this problem plagues other parliaments too.
February of 1988, the United States Senate – the upper chamber of the
US Congress – was discussing a bill on restricting campaign spending.
The Democratic Party supported the bill while the Republicans opposed
it. In a manoeuvre designed to impede the proceedings of the Senate,
Republican senators questioned the quorum – the minimum number of
members necessary for a legislative body to conduct its business – in
the House and then vanished. The Democrats did not have the numbers
required to achieve quorum on their own. To ensure that quorum was
maintained, they voted to authorise the arrest and production of the
absent senators. Officers of the House were despatched to search for the
senators. During the search of the Senate office building, they found
Senator Bob Packwood, but he refused to come to the House voluntarily.
He was then carried feet first into the Senate chamber so that his presence could ensure quorum in the House.
extreme step is a power the Constitution of the United States gives its
two Houses – the Senate and the House of Representatives – to enable
them to compel the attendance of absent law-makers. This incident is a
rare example of how a parliament dealt with the absence of its MPs.
Similarly, parliaments of many countries have evolved mechanisms to
encourage their members to participate in the proceedings of the
No attendance records
starters, most parliaments recognise that their MPs are not children
who are required to mark their presence in school daily. The attendance
records of our MPs in Parliament do not tell us anything. They provide
no insight into their participation in Parliament’s functioning, and do
not show us whether they were in the House when laws were being passed.
The signing of the attendance register just sets the minimum benchmark
for MPs to participate in Parliament.
The House of Commons in the United Kingdom does not ask its MPs to sign an attendance register.
The United States Congress also does not have this requirement. The
Canadian Parliament trusts its MPs to give a self-declaration at the end
of every month about the number of days they attended the House. It
deducts the session allowance of MPs who were absent for more than 21
days in a session.
Debate and recorded voting
of these parliaments encourage MPs to participate in parliamentary
debate in different ways. For example, in the United States, there is no
time limit on speeches. In our Parliament, however, a set time is
allotted for debate, and it is divided between the political parties,
who decide which of their members will speak. In the United Kingdom,
political parties have limited control over which MPs will participate
in a debate, and the speaker of the House takes the lead in ensuring a
balanced debate by inviting members alternately from across the aisle to
speak. Limiting the role of political parties in choosing who speaks on
which debate in our Parliament can improve the levels of participation
and attendance of MPs.
Most parliaments also require MPs to record
their vote on issues and legislation discussed in the House. In fact,
in the United States, any reference to the attendance of legislators is
about how often they missed a vote in the House. The individual voting
record of each member is kept and is available for public scrutiny. This
information is then used during elections to analyse their record as a
legislator. When Barack Obama was running for his first term as
president, the American media pointed out that during his four years as a
senator from Illinois, he had missed 24% of his votes.
They also highlighted that during his time in the Senate, the median
for missed votes was 2%. Having recorded voting rather than voice voting
– in which MPs call out “aye” or “nay” without their votes being
recorded – in our Parliament will ensure the personal involvement of
each MP in parliamentary debate and can be a low hanging fruit in
encouraging them to attend Parliament.
The debate, discussion, and
exchange of ideas by MPs are the foundation of the institution of
Parliament. Low attendance of members weakens this foundation. When MPs
are not present in Parliament, the voice of the people who elected them
is not heard in the highest representative body in the country. When
laws are made without adequate participation, any deficiency in them
impacts the lives of everyone in the country. A systematic change in the
functioning of our Parliament to ensure greater attendance and
participation of MPs is urgently required. It is the first step towards
overhauling and strengthening the deliberative nature of our democracy.
This is the second part in a two-part series on the functioning of Parliament. You can read the first part here.
Chakshu Roy is head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research