The Houses of Parliament shouldn’t bicker

Sunday July 7 2013

By JOHN B. OSORO

The ongoing legislative conflict between the Senate and the National Assembly is a healthy process characteristic of any newly-established institutions anywhere in the world. Despite these tussles, Parliament will continue to make laws that guide and regulate operations of the State.

During the skirmishes, some argued that the Senate is an impediment to the speedy passing of legislation and should, therefore, cease to exist. They appear not to appreciate the benefits of a bicameral legislature, such as providing better representation to varied interests.

The Senate can perform the legislative function of scrutinising Bills originating from the National Assembly, thereby moderating, amending, or improving on them. In Parliament, the Senate reflects the equality of the counties while the National Assembly ensures proper representation at constituency level.

Although the 2010 Constitution expressly assigns separate functions for each House, this should not impede efforts towards transforming both into regulating and moderating the legislative activities of either chamber.

In essence, no enactment of law should occur without the concurrence of the majority of Kenyans (as exemplified by the National Assembly) or the majority of the counties (the Senate).

The placement of checks and balances to regulate the legislative process is bound to encounter some difficulties. Such an attempt will meet stiff resistance owing to the fact that members of both Houses represent varied interests and viewpoints.

Another aspect likely to engage the National Assembly and the Senate for some time is the question of seniority or equality. The conflict may manifest itself during joint sessions called to resolve legislative disputes or other important business. For instance, murmurings on which of the two Speakers should chair the joint sessions may arise, scuttling important legislative business.

Direct mandate

In the UK, the House of Lords has progressively suffered reduction of its powers through a series of Acts of Parliament initiated by the House of Commons. This arose because the Commons enjoys a direct mandate of the people while the influence of the aristocracy is waning.

In comparison, the Kenyan Senate is a representative body and its members boast a large constituency of voters five to 10 times higher compared to that garnered by a member of the National Assembly. Consequently, there is no justification whatsoever for looking down on Senators.

The ‘Lower House’ tag does not justify treating the National Assembly as an inferior House either. The terminology only reflects the historical developments behind a bicameral Parliament, than actual hierarchical posturing.

Besides, in countries where the Upper House was slow to reform its membership, such a chamber has gradually lost its legislative powers to the National Assembly. Functionally, therefore, in those situations, the Lower House has finally taken over the mantle, becoming the de facto Upper House.

Since no House is willing to accept a secondary status in legislative matters, the two Houses should be encouraged to evolve into powerful independent institutions capable of providing a critical review function on either chamber’s activities. In that respect, the two Houses must embrace the spirit of mutual respect.

Firstly, the Standing Orders of either House must require its membership to use courteous language on all matters touching on the other. The onus of stopping members from engaging in emotional outbursts calculated to undermine the other chamber lies squarely on the shoulders of the Speakers of the Senate and the National Assembly.

Mr Osoro works with the Media Skills Development Trust ([email protected])