The constitutional council’s proposal includes proposals intended to strengthen parliament vis-a-vis the executive office. These proposals include handing legislative committees (monopoly?) proposal power and requiring ministers to give up their seats in parliament upon taking office. The council’s explanations envision a process in which ministers approach the committees about proposing legislation, which is then developed by the committees. By requiring ministers to resign their seat in parliament, the council hopes that ministers will to a greater degree not come from the ranks of MPs. In short, it is not likely that these proposal will do much to strengthen parliament.
First, preventing ministers from casting votes in parliament or to introduce legislation is not likely to change much. Ministers are replaced in the legislature by members of their party who will toe the party line much as they have done in the past. While formally barred from introducing legislation, ministers will have easy enough time finding an MP to introduce legislation on their behalf. If committees are given monopoly proposal power things may be a little bit more uncertain but in all probability, the government will, as before, have a majority on each committee and party cohesion/discipline will ensure that the government gets its way.
Second, as it stands, the legislative committees do not have the resources or the expertise to write legislation. Today this task is to a large degree handled by bureaucrats in the ministries. Of course, it is possible to increase the staff of Alþingi considerably in order expand its ability to write legislation but it is not clear that this is the efficient way to go about things. For one thing, a lot of the information about the problems a particular legislation is supposed to address resides in the ministries, i.e., the bureaucracy learns a lot about policy problems in the process of implementing policies. This information is a significant source of the minister’s power. Ministers have discretion about how they use this information. They can release information that serves their policy agenda and withhold information that works against it. In short, the legislative committees would still rely on the executive for information. The most likely outcome is that ministers will, as before, oversee the drafting of legislation within their ministries and then deliver them to the committees who will be in charge of introducing the legislation without having much more influence over its contents than they do today.
Why do I take such a pessimistic view of these proposals? In short, I think they are based on a misunderstanding about the relationship between MPs and their parties. Icelandic MPs have long lamented their lack of independence or power. Yet there is nothing (formally) in the current system that prevents them from taking the initiative to introduce or amend bills. They simply choose not to use their power – they simply vote, with the rare exception, with their party. That is not an accident. It has much to do with the parliamentary form of government in which the government relies on the confidence of the legislature to stay in office. For government MPs, voting against the government risks bringing the government down. Government MPs may dislike a particular piece of the government’s legislative program but generally they will find it is easier to swallow than the possibility of handing the reins of government to the opposition. Or another election, in which the party leaders have an opportunity to exact revenge on the very MPs whose votes brought the government down. And it is not all sticks. There are also carrots. An MP that behave is, e.g., more likely to be rewarded with a seat on a important committee and have a better chance at becoming a minister one day. Non of the proposals that have emerged so far do anything to change this relationship.
Overall, I find these proposals rather strange. It seems to me that they aim at undermine the parliamentary form of government by increasing the separation of the executive and legislative branches (although I think they are not very effective at doing so) while at the same time reducing the role of the president (more on that later). Would it not be more straightforward to hand more executive powers to the president if the goal is to give MPs greater autonomy? The tenor of the proposal and the council’s explanations seems to be that the council is aiming for some sweet spot in between a parliamentary and a presidential system. But it is not clear to me what that sweet spot is – or whether it exists.
Finally, wouldn’t it be nice if the council made some references to research on these things? Is there any evidence that countries where ministers give up their seat in parliament or where ministers are not drawn from the ranks of MPs leads to better political outcomes? And is there any evidence that more autonomous legislators and/or stronger legislative committees make for better policy? To keep with what apparently is the council’s preferred type of reasoning, the anecdote, the U.S.A. is an example of country where legislators have substantial autonomy and legislative committees play an important role in policy making. Is this the example the council wants to emulate?
For references: See Required Readings
Some additional notes on related readings. On legislative committees, Strom (1984) argues that the organization of committees matters and that they, e.g., make the formation of minority governments more likely. Krehbiel (1988) provides a nice overview of theories of legislative committees and under what conditions they affect policy outcomes – for a simpler exposition, see Shepsle (2010). Laver and Shepsle (1994) edited a volume on the ministerial powers that is a useful overview.