By Mohammed Adamu
IT is amazing how, every budget year, the National Assembly, in spite of the often fractious partisan or group differences among its members, has never, once, been unable to forge a conspiratorial unity whenever the nation’s money bill is the subject of legislative deliberations. Conservatives and liberals, radicals and reactionaries, moderates and fundamentalists, capitalists and collectivists, journalists and unionists, lawyers and laities, clergies and secularists, all too suddenly cease all hostilities to find a common ground.
They unite as one to hold the nation by its fragile jugular unless we allow them free hand to add to the budget as they wish or to take away from it wherever they so desire; to divide our common patrimony among themselves and to multiply their fortunes in the upcoming financial year. We have seen time and time again, that a budget bill is now a veritable uniting factor bringing members of the ruling and opposition parties together in one trench, to face a common enemy –us. Pro Buharis and pro Jonathans may disagree on such trifling legislative inanities as amending the Electoral Act to re-order the sequences of election or initiating a bill to allow independent candidacy, but they’ll never differ on the expediency of willfully whipping an executive money bill into a Parliament-only budget.
It is amazing how, perennially, members of our National Assembly continue, without scruples, to take on the entire nation in its unrelenting battle to assert a most fundamentally unfounded right, namely the right to radically re-write an executive budget in a manner almost totally unrecognizable by those who originally proposed it. But it is equally amazing that all these years, the Executive which has continued to suffer the brunt of this annual legislative waywardness, has not, itself, deemed it necessary to approach the courts, once and for all, to put paid to this scandalously recurring culture of legislative impunity over the nation’s annual budgets. Rather the executive has continued to be pathetically reactive enlisting the sympathy of the public only when the deed is already done. In fact, it appears that as the President is conventionally entitled to a ‘pocket veto’ by dragging his assent to lapse with the close of legislative calendar, Saraki’s NASS also, to present the executive with a fait accompli, has just created a new ‘pocket’ device by delaying submission of the budget with a view to securing the harried assent of a time-fluxed President.
And now the President who had proudly proposed a ‘national budget bill’ to the legislature has had to grudgingly sign a degraded document that was more an assemblage of ‘constituency projects’ than it was a national budget in the true sense of the phrase. And to think that many of these projects in fact are the responsibilities of local and state jurisdictions rather than of the Federal government. Now, whether this extra-legislative padding is from ignorance of the law or a disdain for it, only NASS members themselves can tell. But the argument has always been that the legislature is neither conceived to function as a rubber stamp (approving everything that the executive proposes un-tinkered), nor is it envisaged to operate like a computer, taking in garbage and regurgitating garbage. Our legislators insist that to ‘approve’ an executive ‘proposal’ is not merely to ‘okay’ it as it is, but that the power to approve is concurrent with the right to re-order and the duty, where necessary, to re-propose. Nothing is farther from the truth.
It is the self serving attitude of legislators like ours that gives the ‘legislative process’ the reputation of a vicious machine into which executive matters are said to pass as ‘pigs’ and come out as ‘sausages’. The arrogation by lawmakers of the right to add to and to take away items from the budget; the penchant by legislators for raising rather than scaling down budget sums, and the assertion of the right to propose projects in the course of approving projects, all conduce to create this reputation of a legislative process that we have which mauls rather than mould our budget bills. This has never been the intendment of the devisers of this ingenious system of democratic governance in which powers are separated with a view to checking impunity and arbitrariness.
The overarching aim of the ‘doctrine of separation of powers’ in subjecting money bills to the lawmaking process is not so that project approvers become project proposers. If this was so, the duty both to propose and to approve should as well have been left with the President. The subjection of money bills to the lawmaking process is informed not so much by the desire to give lawmakers opportunity to make a law, as it is by the necessity to ensure that the President who proposes projects in the budget bill does not himself approve them.
And this is notwithstanding that in the long run even an assented budget itself is a piece of legislation and is as inviolable as any other piece of legislation. It is not consistent with the aim of the doctrine of separation of powers that any one arm of government should have both the ‘knife’ and the ‘meat’ of a matter to the exclusion of all others. Wherever the duty to propose resides in one, the duty to approve necessarily belongs to another. And where the duty to adjudicate is incumbent on one, the duty to legislate necessarily resides in another. This is without prejudice to the peripheral overlapping powers of each arm over the other.
But to propose projects in the budget bill and to proceed to approve them will be ultra vires the powers of a president in a democracy; as it is also ultra vires the powers of the legislature, in the course of ‘approving’, to ‘propose’ new items. Doing the contrary will amount to a breach of the legal rule ‘against self-interest’ (namely ‘nemo judex in causa sua’) or that no one should be allowed to sit in judgement over his own matter. Metaphorically speaking if a budget bill were a full grown ‘pig’ proposed by the Executive to the legislature for approval, parliament will be acting within its conventional legislative powers to do only one of three things: reduce it to a piglet; or, with minor emendation here and there retain its boar size, or yet the legislature may selectively fatten some of the pig’s body parts that require fattening by concurrently de-fattening other parts that require de-fattening. Provided that in doing so the sum total does not shoot the proposed boar into a mega-sized bull! Thus, the saying that parliament may reduce but cannot increase the overall budget sum. Because parliament is not privy to the ways and means of the executive.
This is from a previous piece titled ‘Paddings, Proposals and Approvals’.
“When NASS remits to the President a bill passed by it containing items unacceptable to the executive, the President has power only to withhold assent. He does not become a ‘lawmaker’ to re-legislate and assent the document. …..By the same token where NASS entertains reservations on any items contained in a money bill, it does not register those reservations by arrogating to itself the power to re-propose and approve new items. …The NASS may only propose adjustments and realignments of already proposed items on the basis of information made available to it –information concerning capacities for execution, the exigencies and expediencies attached to each project including often the realizability of guess-timated revenues.
In fact, the guess-timated nature of budgets is the reason that although when assented it is legally binding on the President to execute, yet on account of the paucity of funds, failure on the part of the President to implement will not amount to an offence.”
The Budget is the Executive’s; not the Legislature’s.