Chile's Congress sits empty

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s 120 members of Congress have announced that as of mid-November, they will stop showing up for work. They are not striking or protesting. They are just skipping work for a month because they have more important things to do, like winning an election.

As the Dec. 13 general elections nears, the Congress building in Valparaiso has emptied of Chile’s well-paid civil servants responsible for making laws. Many are on the campaign trail, trying to get re-elected or supporting their presidential candidate.

Two of the four candidates are also members of Parliament: Deputy Marco Enriquez-Ominami and Senator Eduardo Frei. The other two are right-wing businessman Sebastian Pinera and Jorge Arrate, representing the left.

It has proven difficult to reach a quorum during the afternoon sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and a dwindling number of representatives were attending the three-hour morning meetings from Tuesday to Thursday, when they are supposed to discuss and vote on new laws.

They were all just too busy on the campaign trail.

And on Thursdays, when there are no commissions in the afternoon, deputies weren’t showing up at all. So in mid-October, the party leaders of the Chamber of Deputies unanimously and unilaterally decided that it’s better to adapt to reality than make their representatives do the job they were elected to do.

They voted to take Thursdays off work so they could have more time for campaigning. And as of Nov. 17 and until the elections, the Chamber of Deputies will shut down altogether. But they will not surrender their salaries and allowances of about $11,000 a month.

Congress is normally expected to work 11 months a year. During that time, legislators are expected to spend three days a week working in the Congressional building. One week a month is be spent back in the district they represent.

This is not the first time they've taken a few liberties with that schedule come election season. But only this year did they formally establish it through an agreement that absolved them of all their normal duties.

The deputies say that technically they are not suspending their work, just “reprogramming it.” They promised they would make up for it in the 10 days between the elections and Christmas.

The decision does not extend to the Senate.

“They’re an embarrassment. We are all paying them — and a lot — with our tax money to do their job. If any worker in this country stopped going to work, he would be fired immediately,” said Fabiola Ramirez, a sales clerk.

Not all members of Congress agree with the decision, nor were they asked about it.

This isn't the first time that Chile's elected representatives have fallen into public disfavor. For years, the public has rated Congress as one of the country's worst institutions, and this latest decision has only reinforced that perception.

A survey by the firm Adimark in September — before the deputies decided not to work anymore — found that only 22 percent of those polled approved of the Chamber of Deputies, and just 26 percent approved of the Senate.

Some of the top mayors in the country across the political spectrum sent the representatives an angry letter complaining about their “campaign leave” — not so much out of principle, but rather because when they wanted to take leave for the last municipal elections, Congress suspended their pay while they did so.

But Congress turned a deaf ear. Deputy Ramon Farias, of the government coalition, said the mayors’ letter was mere populism. “They should be concerned about working themselves instead of going around taking pictures of themselves with candidates. If we are going to start taking out the dirty laundry, then we will all suffer the damage,” Farias said.

Farias should know. In an investigative report on the work of Congress broadcast on national television last June, Farias was filmed frequently checking out his Facebook account and that of his friends during congressional debate sessions.

The television crew had filmed the morning sessions at the Chamber of Deputies during four months, revealing a nearly empty chamber while bills were being discussed and voted, how deputies came in hours late if at all, regularly went in to mark attendance electronically and leave, or arrived just in time to vote on a bill and leave immediately. It showed sessions with only 20 of the 120 representatives present.

The program uncovered many of them checking the results of horse races online, reading newspapers, talking with their colleagues or speaking on cell phones while the nation’s budget was being discussed. Others would be seen strolling at a nearby plaza and shining their shoes in the midst of congressional debate.

The report was devastating and members of Congress had a hard time explaining to their electorate why they spent more time making comments to journalists in the hallways or driving off to the capital instead of discussing vital laws.

The problem isn’t only when they don’t work, but also some of the silly proposals they draft when they do. When Chile’s soccer team qualified for the World Soccer Cup in October, three deputies, in the heat of euphoria, presented a bill to grant citizenship to the team’s trainer, the Argentine Marcelo Bielsa. The bill died four hours later after instant public mockery.