Skip to main content
Plaza de Toros en Bogotá

Opening the black box of parliament

The other day, a rather peculiar case made national headlines in Colombian newspapers: An, until then, unknown sub-secretary of the Senate, Colombia’s second chamber, shoved himself into a news network’s camera team. Mr Saúl Cruz, a high-ranking veteran Senate clerk with a 23-year long public sector career, unwillingly caught the public eye when his ruthless actions were caught on tape and broadcasted throughout the country.

Unfortunately for Mr Cruz, he wasn’t being asked about his daytime job as an assistant to the Senate’s chief secretary, whose primary responsibilities include the smooth running of plenary sessions and following-up of items on the committees’ agendas, but about his role as one of the democratic institution’s major power-brokers, with the ability to even get judges elected to Colombia’s Constitutional Court (or, at least, exert veto powers over unwanted government candidates). Although his own fault, he didn’t feel too keen about being dragged out into the public spotlight. He subsequently tried to divert attention by falsely accusing the news reporters of having assaulted him in the first place. He did so in the Senate plenary.

At this point, the unexpected incident had already spurred a political and parliamentary debate (unsuccessfully) calling for the sub-secretary’s resignation. And while it seems that everyone quickly expressed his or her disgust for Mr Cruz’ outburst, he probably won’t lose his position in the near future. In 23 years he has simply collected too many political favours to be ousted now. But the case might serve a bigger purpose after all.

The Talented Mr Cruz

When the story broke, several news outlets, independent bloggers and pundits took a deeper look at Mr Cruz’ reeling and dealing behind closed Senate doors. One particularly well-informed text traced the public servant’s career path back to the early 1990s, when Mr Cruz first stepped foot on the Senate floor. Various (former) parliamentarians are quoted off the record stating that he swiftly ascended through the ranks – usually as the prodigy of a senior politician. Today, he grants permissions to functionaries from the private sector to use Senate meeting rooms, re-schedules important votes and lobbies on behalf of non-elected members of the power elite – all not part of his original job description.

This and other articles also elaborate on the debaucherous interpretation of his formal duties as a public servant: By engaging in extensive power-brokering, he clearly doesn’t focus on serving the general public. But rather serves himself, ally politicians (usually his fellow Conservatives) and their causes.

Black boxes everywhere

In a country where roughly a mere third of the population has proper faith in its parliamentary institutions (Latinobarómetro 2016), such revelations only add to the universal feeling of distrust towards the political system. Colombia saw disenchantment with parliament skyrocket this year, when a former senator, Otto Bula Bula, was arrested for allegedly taking millions of US dollars in bribes to help Brazil’s Odebrecht SA (different family branch, I swear) win a road-building contract.

Yet for once, the Cruz case means that a broader public is able to catch a glimpse into the inner workings of the country’s bicameral system, learning about plenary protocol and recording clerks. A peek into the black box of parliament, so to speak.

Recent research on the European Union’s response to the Euro crisis shows that transparency in the parliamentary decision-making process plays a crucial role in winning back (or generating) the public’s appreciation for the value of democratic institutions. In order for this to play out, a basic level of understanding for parliamentary procedures and functions is imperative.

From Colombia to the Baltics, parliaments should be upgraded by wide-scale transparency measures. Livestreaming plenary sessions alone will not do the job, a broader approach is needed: Ex-post publication of all relevant versions of draft laws and regulations, one-stop-shop parliamentary database, machine-readable listings, binding public consultations, open data formates.

Maybe Mr Cruz’ outrageous fit of temper bears the potential to unearth a hidden interest in the Senate’s internal affairs, in the long run resulting in increased supervision from the public. In the short run, the Colombian Senate should just get rid of him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *