The American government is directly behind sweeping changes to parliamentary procedure which have fundamentally strengthened Parliament and partially contributed to the recent humiliating defeat of the Executive in the House, the Sunday Nation can reveal.
The Americans are supporting and strengthening Parliament as a result of a memorandum of understanding signed between the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) and the National Assembly in January. The US has since been quietly influencing policy, operations and management of Parliament.
USAid financed the drafting of new standing orders which created the Committee of Delegated Legislation which ruled that the reappointment of Justice Aaron Ringera as head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission was illegal. It was a decision that was warmly welcomed by US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger.
“Good to see Parliament take a stand on Ringera! Now KACC, Parliament, and the Executive need to select a director serious about corruption,” the ambassador said. The almost unprecedented muscle shown by Parliament stems partly from the US-financed Parliamentary Strengthening Programme (PSP) which aims to boost the effectiveness of the National Assembly.
Through the MoU, USAid has undertaken to set up a media centre, facilitate live broadcasting of proceedings in the House and help draft a 10-year strategic plan. Some of the effects of the new-found partnership were on display in Parliament last week when it rejected President Kibaki’s reappointment of KACC directors.
With a vote of 86 against 45, Parliament sent a strong message to the President on the limits of his powers. This has led to assertions that the Legislature was encroaching on the powers of the Executive and the Judiciary. Others have said Speaker Kenneth Marende has introduced a parliamentary system through the backdoor.
But Mr Marende has asserted that his role is to preside over parliamentary business guided by the standing orders which are derived from the Constitution. “I swore to uphold the Constitution. I think what I have done is merely to exercise that mandate,” Mr Marende said in an interview.
Parliament has emerged with greater powers than it has had in the past 40 years. Thanks to the new rules, MPs can partially control their own calendar, in a break from past tradition when they could only be summoned from recess at the President’s pleasure.
They can also scrutinise appointments published in the Kenya Gazette, the principle medium through which the President and ministers exercise executive authority. The US has been running similar parliamentary strengthening programmes in Afghanistan, Haiti, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Serbia, Tanzania and Uganda.
Since 2000, USAid through the State University of New York (SUNY) has collaborated with Parliament on initiatives targeting immediate and long-term institutional development priorities. The broad objectives of the priorities were to support Parliament in developing and implementing reforms to strengthen its legislative and oversight functions.
These objectives were fast-tracked from January to take into account the challenges brought about by the post-election violence that followed the 2007 General Election. Parliament responded by reviewing the Constitution and enacted the National Accord and Reconciliation Act that crystallised the reconciliation process.
With post-election violence under control, USAid set into motion implementing the MoU it had signed with Parliament.
Numerous workshops and training sessions both here and in the US have taken place under the MoU. The training targets both staff and Members of Parliament.
Its first step was to strengthen the Parliamentary Service Commission, which manages the National Assembly by preparing its budget promoting ideals of parliamentary democracy and review of parliamentary powers and privileges, among other functions.
The Americans assisted PSC by developing a strategic plan covering 2008-2018 which served as the anchor to other aspects of parliamentary reform. National Assembly Clerk Patrick Gichohi told the Sunday Nation recently that the strategic plan has enabled PSC to make five-year projections for Parliament.
The next critical thing USAid tackled was the rewriting of the standing orders to bring the House rules “in step with technological development, political reform, enhancing capacities of committees and empowering private members’ initiatives among other reforms”.
Mr Marende, who made reform part of his agenda on election as Speaker last year, chaired the Standing Orders Committee. The team received technical assistance from SUNY. It is through the rewriting of the standing orders, which became operational in March, that MPs got a mandate to scrutinise ministries’ budgets. It also created the Committee on Delegated Legislation.
The new rules also ushered in the House the Broadcasting Committee that introduced the live radio and televised proceedings of parliamentary proceedings. Also included in the standing orders is the power by MPs to summon the House while it is on recess, and seek expertise from outside Parliament. It also expanded the departmental committees to 27. They are also open to the public.
But it is the influence from the US legislative system that informs most of the key elements of the new standing orders. The Budget Committee is tailored along the US Budget Office which analyses each vote item by item. It is this standing order that resulted in the rejection of Sh31 million included in this year’s budget for the renovation of the private residence of Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Mr Gichohi notes that 65 per cent of Parliament’s work is financial, hence the need to come up with the office. The scrutiny of all the 40 votes by the Budget Committee is only comparable to the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, he said. The clerk praises the new standing orders saying they put Kenya at par with other parliaments in the Commonwealth.
The live transmission of parliamentary business is also borrowed from the US. Under the project, USAid is also modernising the Hansard section under the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit (PBU). Through the House Live Broadcasting project, there will be a seamless interface between the Hansard and related audio-visual content.
The PBU is expected to become a fully-fledged parliamentary media service complete with newsroom staff and infrastructure. Apart from undertaking live and recorded radio programmes and television broadcasts of parliamentary business, PBU will also cover parliamentary committee meetings and manage pre- and post-production processes.
Just like in British and American jurisdictions, Kenyans will now have first-hand access to parliamentary proceedings produced fully from media facilities situated at Parliament Buildings. There are experts from America stationed at Parliament implementing this project. The intent of Parliament is to have its own television and radio channels. The next level is to put media and related content online.