MicSem Publications

Is the Congress of FSM Becoming Too Powerful?

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

October 13, 1993 Government

The Powers of Congress

To understand the functions of the Congress, we must look backwards to the Micronesian Constitutional Convention held in 1975 that decided on the makeup of the new government of the FSM. The first national legislative body was created in 1965 when the Congress of Micronesia came into being. For years the congress was little more than an advisory body to the American High Commissioner, and Micronesians had long rankled at the impotence of the congress. Its powers were increased in time, but never to the full satisfaction of most Micronesians. The congress never had the full power of the purse, nor was it able to override the veto of the High Commissioner. Although it eventually acquired "advise and consent" powers over department heads, it never had the same prerogative for the appointment of judges.

At the 1975 Constitutional Convention Micronesian representatives were determined to correct this situation. They consciously tried to strengthen congressional powers, even at the risk of investing more than ordinary powers in their new congress. Congress, for example, was made the sole judge of its own election results (a provision that was tested within the last year when the results in one place were contested). The Congress of FSM was also permitted to amend resolutions of the FSM Supreme Court, according to one participant. Some of the functions that might have belonged to the states were passed on to the Congress of FSM on a transitional basis, a former member of Congress maintained.

Moreover, Congress also had the right to choose the national president according to the new FSM Constitution. Why? One person argued that this was done as an economy measure to avoid expensive general elections. But others who were present at the ConCon suggested another, more important reason. They attested to the fear of the smaller districts that in a general election the candidate from the more populous districts would invariably win. As a result, what one person termed a "hybrid of the US presidential system and the Westminster parliamentary system" was fashioned. The president was elected from the Congress by its members. Once named, however, the president was to leave the congress and another person elected to replace him. The president was beholden to the congress that chose him but was no longer a member of that congress. He was without a constituency and so was, strictly speaking, responsible to no one.

One other fact that was not brought up in discussion may be worth mentioning here. A major issue at the Constitutional Convention in 1975 was the distribution of authority between the national government and the states. Many of the states, particularly those that later broke away from the FSM, insisted that the powers of the national government be severely limited. The result was a confederation of states under a national government that was to be circumscribed in its authority. If the Congress of FSM was accorded relatively great power, therefore, it was within the framework of a government that would be rather weak. Perhaps it was envisioned that the states themselves would act as a check on the powers of the Congress of FSM. In the minds of many, this intention was gradually undermined as the national government started acquiring more and more power.

Problems with the Present System

Some of the discussants felt that the Congress of FSM is operating exactly as it was founded to operate. The congress is doing no more than exercising the powers that were given it in the constitution. Yet, one person pointed out that the 1990 Constitutional Convention recognized the imbalance of power in the government and sought to correct it. Most of the amendments proposed at the last ConCon would have had the effect of diminishing the strength of congress, or at least imposing limits and checks upon its powers. Voter turnout in the general referendum on the proposals was poor, however, and none of the amendments was passed. This cannot be blamed upon the congress, he said. Another participant thought that the congress may have indirectly blocked the amendments when it refused to appropriate the funding requested to allow people on the FSM Attorney General's staff to go from state to state to explain the significance of the amendments to the people.

Where are the checks and balances on the power of the congress? some asked. To whom are the members of congress responsible? The answer to that question, many thought, was obvious. The congress is responsible to the electorate, the people who voted the congressmen in office. If people are dissatisfied with the performance of the congressmen, they can vote them out of office in the next election. Yet, in the last congressional election three of the incumbents from one of the states went unchallenged. Why? Perhaps because it is so costly to wage a campaign for elected office that few can afford to take the risk. Perhaps because the men running unopposed were highly regarded by their constituents. If they kept up their contact with their people, turned up for village and family feasts and made gifts of food and other things, they might well be regarded as worthy representatives for congress. The problem, of course, is that their people often have little other information on which to judge their performance. The position of these congressmen on important national issues is not known, and even if it were perhaps it would count for little.

This raised the question of how much information on such issues gets to the people in the village, or for that matter those in town. Several discussants thought that there was a desperate need for much better information flow to the people. This might be helped if we had a private newspaper, entirely free from government control. Such a newspaper would be a small step in the direction of raising people's awareness on national issues. At present candidates for congress seem to have no platform; there are no political parties and no major issues they must address. Campaigns are contests between personalities and families into which national issues almost never intrude. One man was told that "people vote according their stomach," and elections are won by the number of sacks of rice that a candidate has given away. Everyone laughed knowingly when this remark was made. It would be hopelessly naive to expect this to change anytime soon, but a long journey begins with a single footstep.

Who's to Blame?

Some complaints were voiced against the congress. Their salaries and travel budgets are too high; they often ignore petitions from people; some don't spend enough time with the people of their place; and they spend too much of the national revenues on pork-barrel projects. Some thought that the congress was too finicky when reviewing the budget of office heads in the national government, while others thought it was not careful enough in reviewing the programmatic part of the budget. A few people thought that congress, while exercising scrupulous oversight on the administration's budget, let its own expenses run wild. (Some contested this charge, reminding us that the president has the authority to review congress' budget.) These are criticisms, of course, that are heard of legislative bodies everywhere in the world. Perhaps more serious are two other reproaches: that the congress is parochial and lacks a fuller, national vision, and that the very body which should be a sign of national unity is itself so disunited.

On the other hand, it is tempting to throw the blame for all these problems on the congress, one participant warned. It is easy to admonish congress for spending money that might better be used for genuine development on pork-barrel projects, but it the people themselves who make these demands on their congressmen. It is easy to chide congress for "buying" votes for sacks of rice and cases of corned beef, but the people all too readily "sell" their votes. We may talk about making congressmen accountable to the people, but few people are prepared to challenge their representatives, either in face-to-face discussion or at the polls at election time. In an honest appraisal we would have to blame ourselves for some of what we claim are congressional abuses.

The topic "Is Congress Too Powerful" was, as many of the discussants sensed an ambiguous one. It embraced two broad issues. The first was whether the constitutional powers granted to the congress are too great. We reviewed some of the reasons that impelled the framers of the FSM Constitution to give the legislative body as broad powers as possible. One must then ask whether the system as it was designed nearly twenty years ago works well enough today or whether it ought to be changed through constitutional amendments. As a matter of fact, the FSM population resoundingly turned down the amendments proposed by the last ConCon in 1990.

The discussion then turned to the question of whether congress was abusing the powers that it possesses by law. There were, as one might expect, a number of criticisms of congress. Yet there were strong defenders of the congress, too. Whatever their position on this point, nearly all discussants expected the same thing of the congress: that it put national interests above local interests and work to develop this new nation with the same vigor and dedication that the old Congress of Micronesia showed in creating it.

No worthwhile discussion on topics like this can conclude without participants asking what responsibility they bear for the problems they are decrying. I All of us must ourselves what we can do to correct the situation. In this case, we might well ask ourselves what we might do to get information on important issues to the people in the villages and towns of Micronesia. We could also ask how we might take the lead in calling congress to accountability, if this is seen as necessary.