2 July 2013

Liberia: We Concur With Sen. Ballout, But...


THE LOCAL MEDIA reports last week quoted Maryland County Senator John Ballout as highlighting the biting wit in the Liberian political realm in which some members of National Legislature and the public take pleasure in blaming the Executive Mansion for failing to meet the needs of the Liberian peole. "My reason is simple; the Legislature has so much power in guiding the public interest, particularly, representing and protecting the interest of the State and its people," Senator Ballout reportedly said. The Executive Mansion would have no option but to design policies and programs for the welfare of the Liberian people, the reports quoted the senator as contending, if the National Legislature uses its oversight power appropriately and adequately in all matters of governance requiring legislative collaboration.

THE MARYLAND LAWMAKER blamed the inadequate and inappropriate use of the oversight powers on what he believes to be low-level intellectual competence amongst some legislative officials, who he said the people elected based on partisan and clientele considerations or sectarian popularity in tribal areas. As the result of this, the senator observed that some of these legislators have been unable to stand up to the presidency. The senator blamed the Legislature for bad governance, citing a situation in which it passed 68 concession agreements, only two of which accord benefits to residents of operation areas. He however reportedly revealed that a modernization process was underway at the Capitol Building to remedy the "shameful" situation. Under the process, the Legislative Budget Office (LBO) will hire experts in various fields to advice legislators on issues of national concern.

IT IS SENATOR Ballout's courage to call a spade a spade that draws our attention – of all the good points he made regarding the lackluster performance of the National Legislature. We are sympathetic of his contentions that the omission of constitutional standards for legislative candidates, besides the age and residency requirements (Art. 30 a, b) – unlike the Executive and Judiciary branches – has imposed intellectual incompetence on the National Legislature. We are therefore upbeat to hear that the National Legislature has recognized the anomaly, and that rather than considering a constitutional amendment to set such standards, it is considering administrative solutions. Here is where our concurrence ends.

HERE IS WHY: by requiring taxpayers to make additional funds available to compensate for the inadequacies of some legislators, the modernization process has proven myopic. Its imposition on the national coffers makes it a public burden rather than a solution to casting intellectual balance amongst the branches of the Liberian government as a way buttressing the check-and-balance and separate but coordinate doctrines of the Constitution of Liberia. We do not share the legislature's euphoria about the government hiring a body of technocrats to advise the Legislature on how best to conduct the will of the people who elected them. One reason is such a body will not only be unwieldy and difficult to supervise, hold accountable, or monitor for efficiency. The second reason is simply this: what a lawmaker votes to legislate is a matter of conscience, constituent imperative, and the prevailing socio-economic, security, and political situations of the day. A parallel advisory body, such as envisioned by the modernization process of the National Legislature will destroy this freedom of the legislators to consult freely with trusted professionals of shared constituent interest and responsibility. While the Legislature has no control over who joins its ranks, there is something – other than bloating the legislative budget by building a parallel advisory authority – its leaderships can to do to help cast the much-sought-after intellectual balance.

THAT SOMETHING IS for the leaderships of the National Legislature to put to maximum use the hundreds of office staffers that are already in their employ. This is a practiced legislative and governance tradition in representative democracies around the world – elected officials independently vet and employ professionals with expertise in critical areas of governance. Every member of the National Legislature of Liberia is enjoying this privilege. What the legislative leaderships has perhaps not considered to do is to ensure that those employed and paid by taxpayers are experts, not family members, girlfriends, alter egos, or bootlickers. Because of the perennial restraining effects of budgetary deficits, we have no doubts that any attempt in the Capitol Building's modernization process to deviate from this path of replacing the current batch of "yes-sir legislative staffers" with professional staffers and opting for a parallel advisory authority of professionals is to opt for failure and for business as usual. Lest we are misunderstood as discrediting all current legislative staffers, the point we are making is that the leaderships of the National Legislature will do well to elevate the portfolios of these staffers to advisors rather than branding them "office boys", "office girls", secretaries, or just aides.

WE CALL ON Senator Ballout, as well as other progressive legislators who share his unease, to elevate his concern for the intellectual imbalance between the Executive and Legislative branches of the Liberian government to the level of administration-supported peer review that requires a dramatic break with the past. The truth is the lawmakers cannot possibly have their offices full of staffers and yet require the government to employ additional people to do the jobs for which they get monthly salaries.

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