The post-budget placement period in June brings with it an inundation of various analyses, scrutinies and assessments of the most important policy document of the year. As a clear reflection of the political commitment of the government, the budget-making process remains at the center of attention of various interest groups and stakeholders. If, however, we are to investigate the role of the legislature in the budget cycle in the Bangladesh context, it can be aptly said ex ante (pre-budget) oversight is an area where there has been a gaping hole for years.
It is a known fact that, no significant pre-budget consultation is conducted before the budget session begins in June every fiscal year, to the extent that the entire budget drafting process seems shrouded in secrecy, lacking public and civil society participation. The information gap remains a major problem, as government websites and relevant data sources tend to play limited role in engaging the mass public. Pre-budget consultations allow MPs to carry out one of their key legislative functions: that of representation. Because MPs are mandated to draw views and opinions from the public, from private citizens as well as from organized groups about the contents of the next budget, they are able to provide a variety of views to the government. This is done by MPs who are members of Financial and Expenditure Committee in the UK (Budget policy statement) and Finance committee in Canada (pre-budget statement) and many other commonwealth and European countries.
Public Participation and Political Representativeness: In theory, as an institution, the parliamentary committee system in Bangladesh emulates the Westminster tradition which is capable of holding the government accountable and ensuring a check on monopoly power of the executive. In reality however, being the 'budget approving' parliament, budget-making in Bangladesh is entrusted to the executive and receives swift legislative approval. As far as parliamentary standing committees are concerned, the quality of discussions held in plenary sessions are a clear reflection of their constrained roles, thus undermining the overall system of legislative accountability. Regardless of being the de jure authority, MPs themselves have consistently failed to channel the demands of the common people, let alone advocating a people-centric budge. Thus despite being a vital navigator of the country's revenue and expenditures for the upcoming the fiscal year, the budget-cycle does not allow the aspired level of public participation and engagement in the budget itself.
In Bangladesh, parliamentary tools of accountability remain as ornamental pieces of eyewash as the trajectory of parliamentary oversight has only seen subsequent deterioration over the years. The culture of polarized politics has gradually undermined parliamentary apparatus and an absence of opposition political parties has further weakened the parliament's ability to play a credible role as the apex lawmaking institution. Quite unsurprisingly, the 8th, 9th and 10th parliament has witnessed a subsequent decline in the participation of opposition members in parliamentary sessions. Guillotining of grant demands raised by opposition members during budget session are quite common.
Pre and Post-Budget Engagement: Apart from the lack of public engagement, major constraint which limits parliamentary engagement in the budget formulation phase arises due to the absence of pre-budget discussions among lawmakers, who are also parliamentary committee members. Ministerial consultation with selective stakeholders and interest groups do not allow necessary engagement with the budget and simply perpetuates the overarching dominance of the executive in the budget making process. As a form of pre-budget consultation, the Finance Minister shares a certain portion of the budget document with all the chairmen of Standing Committees, which is deemed as an inadequate effort.
Usually, the budget is tabled so late that hardly any meaningful discussion is possible; altogether two to three weeks, which are inadequate compared to other Westminster parliaments. When it comes to post-budget discussions, parliamentary sessions are more often rhetorical, due to parliament members lacking sufficient qualification and training required to make an informed post-budget review. Therefore, the absence of an institutionalized parliamentary budget and (or) research office which would act as a research support wing for members of parliament, is an issue that has been identified as requiring immediate attention, along with the activation of the Act which promulgates the establishment of the Institute of Parliamentary Studies (IPS), a formal institutional setting where experts on parliamentary and policy affairs can support the Member of Parliaments (MPs) in their policymaking endeavors. The reluctance of MPs to conduct budget reviews is often attributed to constitutional restrictions imposed by Article 90 which itself allows little scope for even ruling party MPs to play a critical role in budget sessions. MPs are neither allowed to vote against a particular motion nor refrain from voting, thus obliterating any form of floor-crossing. The mainstream political culture thus dissuades MPs from playing a pivotal role in budget scrutiny (also called ex-post budget oversight) as a result of which they are more inclined towards activism based in their respective constituencies, such as resource allocations in Upazilla and Union Parishads, which are supposed to be greater concerns of the local government representatives.
One of the most important parliamentary limitations in Bangladesh is that the Rules of Procedure prohibits referral of the budget to any parliamentary committee for scrutiny thus depriving the members of the opportunity to go into budget contents in more depth before general discussion in the House begins.The UK does feature a rather extensive committee stage lasting several weeks of a three-month parliamentary Budget process. In India, the parliamentary budget process is allowed to last up to 75 days. Both Houses adjourn for a fixed period (three weeks) during the committee stage. Departmentally-related Standing Committees are mandated to examine the demand for grants submitted by various ministries during the recession. They are examined in details and the committees can approve of the demand or suggest changes.
Two of the most vital internal organs of the parliament that are also involved in ex-post oversight are the standing committee on ministries (SCM) and the public accounts committee (PAC).
The Public Accounts Committee is traditionally entrusted with the task of scrutinizing appropriation accounts of government and examining the reports of the controller and auditor general as well as financial statements showing the income and expenditure of autonomous and semi-autonomous government bodies. Although entrusted with great responsibilities, the Public Accounts Committee allegedly lacks the skilled/trained human resource, logistical as well as infrastructural support needed which have led to successive backlogs in reporting. Presently, only one officer from the Controller and Auditor General's (C&AG's) office acts on deputation in the PAC whose efficiency is hampered by the lack of co-operation of the Secretariat.
Conclusion: All around the world the role of the legislature in budgetary process is enhancing, thanks to the gradual strengthening of parliamentary committees, institutional autonomy of entities supporting the legislature and greater legislative access to comprehensive and timely information needed for understanding the impact of budget allocations. In Bangladesh, reforming the existing system of parliamentary oversight of the budget will be a revolutionary step towards empowering the legislature. To ensure such a change, budget-making must be considered in its totality- as a comprehensive process of formulation, approval, implementation followed by monitoring. By publishing a probable draft budget (pre-budget statement) on websites before the actual budget proposal, the government can encourage feedback from various quarters, a move that can enhance bureaucratic as well as public accountability by manifolds. Standing committee should be mandated to examine the budget proposal which can be followed by public hearings, a mechanism for ensuring a people-friendly budget that is currently missing.
A budget that reflects people's aspirations is a long cherished dream. It is high time that we realize that the onus of fulfilling this dream must be equally shared by the parliament as well.
Taiabur Rahman is a Professor at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka.
Lamia Mohsin is a post-graduate student at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka
[This article is an excerpt of a working paper titled 'Parliamentary Power of the Purse: Stocktaking the Role of JatiyaSangsad (JS) in the Budgetary Process of Bangladesh' published by Center on Budget and Policy,
University of Dhaka, June 2020]