Sunday, March 26, 2017

Kenya is not the USA

The Parliament of Kenya is not the Congress of the United States; the National Assembly is not the mirror of the House of Representatives and the Senate of Kenya is not the mirror of the Senate of the United States of America. Consequently, the politics of Kenya is markedly different from the politics of the United States. This simple truth seems to have escaped many Kenyans who pay attention to the politics of the USA that many of them see parallels in the way, for example, Bills are passed in the US Congress.

In recent days, the Republican-controlled federal government of the United States has failed to repeal the American Health and Patient Protection Act, also known as Obamacare. Its prospective replacement, the American Healthcare Act, or Trumpcare, was unpopular with many interest groups, from congressional conservative hardliners, to congressional moderates, to insurance companies, to insurance and healthcare providers and, most assuredly, congressional Democrats. Its failure offers a teachable moment for Kenyans who would draw parallels between the US way of legislating and Kenya's way.

In the United State, where the doctrine of separation of powers is elevated almost to a religious precept, the law-writing and law-making powers of the US federal government are almost exclusively those of the US Congress; the Executive branch has limited legislative powers, exercised through executive orders (such as the ones President Donald Trump has issued in relation to immigration) which are then enforced by federal agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security). One of the hallmarks of the US legislative system is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is elected from a congressional district and, usually, represents the majority party. In 2017, the Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan, a Republican, and he is responsible not to the President but to the Republican congressional delegation from the Republican Party.

On a law as consequential as the federal government's budget, it is the House of representatives and the Senate that are responsible for the legislative language of the budget bill with critical input from the executive branch. The economic analysis of the federal budget is undertaken by the Congressional Budget Office and not the US Treasury Department and, sometimes, key elements of the federal budget are out of the hands of the executive branch. The failure of Trumpcare was because the Speaker was unable o persuade a majority of his congressional delegation to support parts of the bill that dealt with the subsidies that the federal government pays to individuals for their healthcare. These were items that are paid for out of the federal government's revenues and they offend a hardcore conservative group of the congressional delegation known as the House Freedom Caucus. Speaker Ryan was attempting to help President Trump to implement one of the president's campaign promises: to repeal and replace Obamacare as one of the first things his government would do.

What makes the US situation different is that it didn't matter what President Trump or Speaker Ryan wanted; the Republican congressional delegation had no obligation to support the president's agenda if it clashed with their own. President Trump may be the leader of the Republican Party by virtue of his presidency, but the true leadership of the Party resides in Speaker Ryan, and Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader in the US Senate.

In Kenya, though the Constitution makes it plain that law-writing and law-making are the preserve of Parliament, and the the budget is the almost exclusive preserve of the National Assembly, the language of the Appropriations Bill is almost always the language proposed by the National Treasury and takes into account the recommendations of the Commission on Revenue Allocation and the reports of the Controller of Budget, the Auditor-General and the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. Unlike in the United States, the National Assembly usually attempts to tinker with the sums allocated for various programmes under the budget but without the acquiescence of the National Treasury (and the President, for that matter), the National Assembly's efforts are usually ineffective.

Kenya's is not a federal government notwithstanding the attempts by quack constitutionalists to paint it as such; it remains, for all intents and purposes, a centralised government that performs devolved functions through subordinate elected county governments. The ruling party's (or alliance's/coalition's) parliamentary delegation is not led by the Speakers of the National Assembly or Senate, nor is it led by the Majority Leaders in both chambers; it is led by the President and the Speakers and Majority Leaders do his bidding on everything he wants.

One reason why the President of Kenya enjoys such power over his party's or alliance's/coalition's parliamentary delegation is that neither are elected on ideological grounds. Had Uhuru Kenyatta promised to repeal and replace a law that had been enacted under President Kibaki's tenure, for example, the Cancer Prevention and Control Act, 2012, he would have been responsible for drawing up the Bill, he would have been responsible for its legislative language and he would have decreed that his party's elected representatives fall in line in Parliament and they would have, because on fiscal matters, Kenya's parliamentarians are not united by ideology but by political loyalty to the president to whom they pay fawning obeisance. President Kenyatta wouldn't have had to lobby his party's parliamentary delegation with fiscal sops; none of them cares about the ideological reasons for spending or not spending public funds on cancer prevention, research or treatment. All they care about is getting re-elected together with the president from their own party/alliance/coalition.

Looking at the roles that Speaker Ryan plays in the US federal government and the ones that Speaker Justin Muturi plays in the Kenyan national government, it quite clear that Speaker Ryan has a political constituency separate from that of President Trump while Speaker Muturi's and Uhuru Kenyatta's are one and the same. Ryan's congressional committee chairmen are powerful players in their own right with sometimes separate political constituencies from Speaker Ryan's, Speaker Muturi's parliamentary committee chairmen are not and do not but will do as Speaker Muturi demands because Speaker Muturi is fulfilling President Kenyatta's wishes.

The US has had over 240 years to wean itself of the British parliamentary system; Kenya has only wedded itself further to it in the over fifty years of independence. Instead of developing a political system and political institutions all of its own, Kenya has copied the worst aspects of the British and US systems. The US system is dysfunctional because of its hyperpartisanship; Kenya's is dysfunctional because of its utter lack of ideological consistency. For us to truly appreciate the system we have and the challenges we face, first we must stop seeing Kenya's parliamentary system as a hybrid version of both the US and British systems and, instead, we must ask ourselves, what we need, what we can build to address those needs and how much the whole kit and caboodle will actually cost. Only then can we talk without irony of the "Kenyan" government.

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