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Opinion: How can we make the budgeting process fairer and more democratic?

Drafting a budget, or any form of legislation, will always be a difficult and divisive task but there are ways of listening to all sections of society in the process.

Image: Thinglass via Shutterstock

WITH THE BUDGET just around the corner, we can begin readying ourselves for the inevitable chorus of disapprovals from the business sector, trade unions and society at large on how Budget 2015 has failed us.

These disapprovals can generally divided into two groups:

  1. Those who will argue that the Government did the wrong thing; and
  2. Those who will contend the Government didn’t listen to third parties when drafting the Budget.

These same complaints are frequently voiced when other bills are passed through the Oireachtas in Ireland. Issues like these undermine the very foundations of democracy and need urgent addressing. The Government has the power to introduce reforms that would dramatically change the way business-as-usual is carried out.

Line Item Veto

As it currently stands, if a TD has a problem with a specific provision in a bill and they vote against that provision, they in turn vote against the whole bill. This will cause them to lose their party whip, and possibly contribute to the failure of the bill as a whole. Inevitably, a crisis of conscious will result for the TD: to vote against a bill, even if they agree with 99% of it and just have an issue with that specific provision, or to vote in favour of the bill, though their doubts over that section remain.

If the power of a Line Item Veto was given to the Oireachtas – to clarify, Dáil and Seanad Eireann, not the Government – it would assist in eliminating a potential crisis of conscience and help undermine the first accusation of the Government not listening. The Line Item Veto is a power that allows, in this case the legislator, to officially reject specific parts of a proposed bill without rejecting the entire bill.

Similar systems operate in other countries, including Brazil. In most countries where it is in operation, the power of the Line Item Veto resides with the Executive – this leads to concerns over its constitutionality. An attempt to introduce it in the US failed when it was ruled unconstitutional because it was seen as a unilateral amendment by one of the branches of Government. However, this problem should not arise in Ireland, as Article 15.2.1 of Bunreacht na hEireann states, “The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is… vested in the Oireachtas”, so if this power was granted to the Oireachtas then the concerns over its constitutionality should be null.

Another problem that is frequently raised when discussing this proposal is that it is felt that it could be open to abuse by the opposition, or by members of the government who are seeking to hold the government to ransom for personal gain. In other words, it could be a powerful weapon for the parish-pump politician. In order to avoid this situation, a provision could be included that a viable alternative must be introduced within a set number of days, that is to be debated immediately and voted upon.

A viable alternative in relation to the budget can be defined as one that has been fully and officially costed by the Department of Finance or another independent State body. If this alternative fails to be enacted then the original is to be voted on again. To avoid deadlock arising, a limit of three alternatives could be put in place and in a situation where none of them found favour with the majority, the original is automatically implemented.

Petitioning

Those that will say that the deputies and senators of the Oireachtas did not listen to their constituents’ concerns when deciding the budget must take some responsibility for the situation they find themselves in.

In the lead-up to each budget, the Finance Committee seeks petitions from individuals and non-state bodies such as charities, trade unions and business groups. In many cases, representatives of these petitions have been invited to discuss their proposals with the committee. All submissions are considered by the committee with many actually debated in the committee meetings; 68 petitions were submitted to the Finance Committee this year, raising a variety of issues, such as the Income Tax Exemption Limit, road tax, and specific programme funding. Forty were then given the opportunity to present their case orally directly to the committee. These were then collated and presented to the Minister for his consideration.

This shows that the Oireachtas has been – and is – willing to listen. It is up to the citizen to make the effort to make a submission and get off the sidelines. If someone feels strongly about a certain issue then they should present a written submission to this committee. It does not have to have a complicated cost/benefit analysis; some of the submissions this year were scarcely more than a paragraph in length. While the outcomes of these have yet to be confirmed, as we will not know until Budget day, the concerns and ideas of Irish citizens have been discussed and debated by the Oireachtas and positive change could come from them.

No matter what type of system is in place, drafting a budget, or on that note any form of legislation, will always be a difficult and divisive process. The Line Item Veto will help prevent unfair decisions being made where viable alternatives are available. The embracement of the Finance Committee submission process (and in terms of other legislation the Petitions Committee) will ensure that those with good ideas, no matter where in society they come from, are listened to. Both these suggestions will benefit budgeting and, in turn, the entire legislation process.

Colm Bergin has experience in both politics and public policy having worked in New York, Brussels and Washington DC. He is a graduate of Government and Public Policy at UCC and holds a Diploma in Law from the IPA. He is currently pursuing an LLM in Business and Human Rights Law in Queen’s University Belfast.

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