Last week I started reading As Raízes do Conservadorismo Brasileiro (The Roots of Brazilian Conservatism), by Juremir Machado da Silva. The book traces the origin of Brazilian conservatism back to the Áurea Law, which abolished slavery in the country (thus my interest in it; Black history in Brazil and the U.S. has been one of my research areas). In chapter 7, the author describes the legislative process surrounding the Áurea Law in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Keep in mind - Brazil abolished slavery in the 19th century under a monarchy led by emperor D. Pedro II. The bill was sanctioned by princess imperial Isabel, who replaced a sick D. Pedro II (who was in Europe at the time). Importantly, legislators approved the Áurea Law in a span of five days. At the end of chapter 7, Silva writes: “One idea prospered in the social imaginary: when parliament wants, everything happens”. This idea is still part of the social imaginary today. But is it true?
A couple of years ago, when I decided to focus my doctoral work on legislative politics, I wanted to deconstruct ideas like this. In many Latin American countries, citizens view legislators as corrupt politicians who do not care about working. While this is obviously true -- the recent Odebrecht scandals tell us as much -- it is not the whole picture. One example: it is very common for journalists in Brazil to visit the floor in the Chamber of Deputies on a Friday and find it empty. They infer that legislators do not work; otherwise, they would be on the floor. There are a few problems with this view. First, not all legislative work happens on the floor. In fact, most legislative work happens before lawmakers meet on the floor for a vote. Second, legislators are indeed working on Fridays: that is when they go back to their districts to meet with their constituents. I have spent some time with Brazilian deputies in their districts. They work nonstop while they are there. And while they are in Brasília. Of course, a lot of them don’t work at all (I will never forget the image of a deputy sleeping during a vote on the floor). But others do work.
As I continue reading Silva’s book, I will comment on whether it is enough for legislators to “want” to pass a bill. Spoiler alert: it is not. More to come.
Beatriz Rey is a political scientist and a writer based in Washington, D.C.