Senate row described as "a storm in a teacup"

10-11-2003

A recent row in the Czech Senate regarding the wording of a bill submitted to it by the Chamber of Deputies has focused attention on the workings of Parliament's Upper House. It appears that a typographical error in a draft amendment gave a bill submitted to the Senate a different meaning to that which MPs thought they had approved, which rendered it invalid. The intervention of the Constitutional Court may be needed to resolve the situation

Czech SenateCzech Senate A new amendment to the law on income tax was supposed to allow entrepreneurs to deduct cars up to a value of 900,000 CZK from their taxes. However, a technical error, which saw the expression "is not" placed in the text of the bill instead of the word "is", seemed to imply that there was no limit to this value. This mistake had been overlooked in the Lower House of the Parliament but the offending article was discreetly corrected by civil servants before the bill passed to the Senate for review. This was presumably done in order to avoid the possibility of having to send the amendment back to the Chamber of Deputies for another vote. However, senators from the opposition Civic Democrat Party or ODS noticed the change and immediately claimed that the bill should not be considered by the Senate, as it was no longer the one that had been passed by the Lower House. A number of other politicians, including independent Senator Edvard Outrata, have played down the issue:

Outrata claims that the bill had actually passed all readings in the Lower House on the understanding that the text was the same as that which was presented to the Senate. He said that, given the sometimes tortuous process that bills undergo in the Lower House in terms of being chopped and changed by MPs before final approval, it was hardly surprising that typographical errors often occur. As a result so-called "technical corrections" such as the one in question were common:

"There is a usual arrangement in the Lower House, and actually in ours too, that legislative errors and other small adaptations can be made simply by the technical staff, because we had some problems in the past with things that were on the margins of technicality."

Outrata maintains that without this arrangement, half of the work of the house would be taken up with votes on trivial details like correcting misplaced commas or wrongly numbered paragraphs. He rejected suggestions that, in this instance, changing "is not" to "is" was not a technical error but a substantive one. He believes that everyone actually wanted the amendment to pass in the form in which it was submitted to the Senate, but that some opposition politicians were simply raising a fuss about the word-change in order to slow down the workings of government. Nevertheless, he did say that if anyone really felt that there had been an infringement they were of course free to lodge a complaint with the Constitutional Court, which was the ultimate authority on such matters.

The whole issue has highlighted the role that the Senate plays in modifying and refining bills passed on to it by the Chamber of Deputies. Despite this particular controversy, Outrata claims the Senate is generally quite successful in terms of processing legislation. He pointed to the fact that the Czech Senate was perhaps the most successful Upper House in Europe in terms of the number of bills it sends back amended to the Lower House, which are then subsequently accepted. This is particularly impressive in view of the sheer amount of legislation the Senate actually gets through. It currently has to consider an average of around 300 bills a year. This is primarily due to the fact that the legislature has been in a state of almost constant transition for the past decade, first as a result of the need to rewrite laws after the fall of communism, which was immediately followed by the obligation to adapt legislation to conform to EU norms.

10-11-2003