Acting as an oversight mechanism in the law-making process, parliamentary committees, also known as thematic committees, are formed with specialised groups of members of parliament to investigate certain issues, scrutinise government policies, and so play an important role in making parliament effective and accountable. Besides ensuring that laws are carefully considered, that the government is responsible, and that the opinions of the people are heard, these House panels keep a close eye on the government’s function and the operation of other state agencies and act to bring the executive's decisions into the open for public discussion.
A total of 16 House committees, each with 23 to 25 lawmakers, are mandated by the constitution to be a part of the federal parliament of the nation. The House of Representatives (HoR) has 10, the National Assembly has 4, and two of the committees are joint ones. Of the 16 committees, the HoR's 10 parliamentary committees are: finance, international relations, industry, commerce, labour and consumer interest, law, justice, and human rights, agriculture, cooperative and natural resources, women and social, state affairs, development and technology, education and health, and public account. Similarly, four National Assembly panels are: sustainable development and good governance, legislative management, delegated legislation and government assurances, and national interest and coordination among members, while joint committees are: parliamentary hearing and state direction, principle rules, and responsibility.
Convened on January 9 following the general elections on November 20, 2022, our parliament is still without committees. Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda-led government has been in place for nearly four months. In spite of this, the parliament has not yet chosen the members of its committees because political parties disagree on how many of their MPs should be included in each committee. The ruling party and opposition leaders have sat down for dialogue to sort out issues, but to no avail so far. The fact that parliamentary committees are so important to setting legislative agendas, reviewing legislation, conducting investigations, and evaluating government programmes and policies makes their formation all the more important.
Though there are many legislators who want these committees to be formed during the current parliamentary session. However, it appears easier said than done. Because the government is now bracing to present and endorsement of its budget in a month’s time after which the parliament is likely to be prorogued. Earlier, the absence of House regulations was said to be the cause of the committee formation delay. The House didn't approve the regulations until February, after it started conducting business on January 9. The disagreements between the parties about whether to suspend MPs who are being investigated for crimes caused the delay in introducing House regulations. Similar to this, the ruling parties had a dispute over restricting the Speaker's powers, and it took them many weeks to change their minds.
The regulations were approved after protracted negotiations, but there has been no progress in creating the House committees. According to reports, the committees have not yet been constituted because the ruling parties, especially the CPN-Maoist Centre, wanted the Constitutional Council Act, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Enforced Disappearances Enquiry Act to be approved before the formation of these committees. In the meantime, the Constitutional Council Act, a major bone of contention, has not been revised, creating a deadlock. The two major parties of the ruling coalition, the Nepali Congress and Maoist Centre, requested the opposition party, the CPN-UML, to revise it, but the latter has not yet shown any interest in doing so.
In a parliamentary democracy, House committees are formed to improve the performance of the legislature. When the House is inactive and not in session, these committees' roles grow. The delay in committee formation will have additional effects, such as a number of revisions or modifications to bills submitted to the legislature remaining in limbo. Also, due to time restrictions, numerous members who would like to express their opinions on certain bills or particular events are unable to do so. Such matters may not be discussed in length in the House. In such a situation, the relevant parliamentary committees receive such bills and specific topics for discussion. These matters will remain indefinitely pending if committees are not established soon.
The efficiency of parliament will be hampered if they are not formed in time or formed later after certain legislations are adopted without detailed discussions in these committees. The nation's ongoing political divisiveness has been reflected in the delay in committee formation. Political parties are more focused on winning political points than cooperating for common causes. In order to create parliamentary committees, political parties must set aside their differences and cooperate sincerely. Democracy and the fundamentals of good government will be more severely harmed the longer they wait.
The House committees have grown in significance as the parliament's effectiveness has been questioned in light of accusations that lawmakers are shirking their duties. Incidents reveal that some lawmakers are content to sign the attendance book in order to collect their allowances, even though they don't want to attend House proceedings. Several House sessions, it has been reported, could not run due to a lack of required attendance.
Lastly, in addition to the major parties, the Speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR), Dev Raj Ghimire, and the Chairman of the National Assembly, Ganesh Timilsina, both of whom are affiliated with the main opposition party, should intensify their role in promoting talks between political parties to resolve the deadlock. The creation of parliamentary committees shouldn't be subject to political squabbling because they help the parliament effectively serve the needs of the populace. A strong parliament, in turn, is essential for advancing democratic values and ensuring that our executive branch is responsive to the needs of the populace and accountable to its constituents and representatives.
(Upadhyay is Managing Editor of this daily.)