Monitoring the government
In addition to legislation, another important, increasingly significant duty of the National Assembly is to monitor the Government and the institutions of state administration under its direction. Monitoring is basically aimed at determining whether the legislative will has been implemented and whether the Government is operating in compliance with the laws. The Government can only carry out its work on the basis of the Fundamental Law and other laws and within the limits set by them.
The parliamentary function of monitoring executive power proceeds from the political responsibility of the Government. The Government is accountable to the National Assembly for its operation and that it is under obligation to provide a regular accounting of its work. The Government summarises its policy goals and legislative plans in the Government programme and the Prime Minister candidate submits this to the National Assembly. The Government programme is approved by the National Assembly simultaneously with the election of the Prime Minister.
The party or parties with a parliamentary majority form a Government. Since the regime change in Hungary, due to peculiarities in the electoral system and for various other reasons, a coalition government of two or more parties has become common. The Government rules with the confidence of the National Assembly, that is with a parliamentary majority. The majority of the National Assembly can even withdraw its confidence from the Government if it does not agree with its policies. This process is the so-called constructive motion of no confidence by which an absolute majority of MPs can end the mandate of the Government in power in order to elect a new Prime Minister, at the same time thus ensuring a continuity of governance. The Government can also raise the question of confidence and can request a vote of confidence in its favour from the National Assembly in order to reinforce its position of action. It can put forward a separate motion of confidence or even submit it for a vote in connection with a proposal (e.g. the budget bill). If there is a vote of no confidence in Parliament with an absolute majority, the Government is under obligation to step down. A motion of no confidence has not been put forward since 1990, but a vote of confidence took place on 6 October 2006. This parliamentary vote served to bolster the Government.
The relationship between the National Assembly and the Government is multi-tiered. The Government's activities are monitored by the National Assembly, but the relationship between them cannot be characterised as one of subordination and superordination. The Government is under obligation to enforce the laws, but governance does not only consist of enforcing laws. The Government has separate duties and powers of governance as a result of the Fundamental Law, but it also exerts decisive influence on the exercise of the duties of the National Assembly. (See the section on legislation.)
However, this model of constitutional affairs is no longer so simple from a political standpoint.
In parliamentary monitoring of the Government, problems arise that are also difficult to resolve in other parliamentary democracies. Since the Government is provided by the parliamentary majority, being in decision making positions it is essentially the governing party majority that monitors the Government. A solution to this contradiction may be to strengthen minority protection rights and the powers of the opposition and of the sponsors in both parliamentary procedure and organisational issues. A good example of this would be the Standing Orders passed by the National Assembly in 1994. There is a view that the Government is truly monitored by the parliamentary minority since, unlike the majority, it is in a position to offer alternatives and place the Government under a thorough review. An important tool in monitoring the Government is to use the conventional publicity of parliamentary sittings, which is enhanced by the various media.
The emphasis placed on the two most important functions of Parliament, to enact laws and to monitor the Government, and the extent to which each is carried out are viewed differently by the governing parties and the opposition. That is natural.
Governing parties tend to seek to enact laws as it is mostly through legislation that the Government programme can be implemented. Since they have the parliamentary majority they can assert their will through legislation. As covered in detail in the discussion on legislation, the situation is different for bills that require a two-thirds majority, where a law cannot be enacted without the backing of the opposition.
The opposition places greater emphasis on monitoring the Government. It proceeds from the very nature of this monitoring that the views and criticisms of the minority can better be asserted than in enacting laws. The fundamental parliamentary function of the opposition is to offer criticism, to monitor the Government and to demonstrate alternatives. In various ways (within the faction primarily or in other ways) the governing majority also monitors the Government after a fashion. These types of monitoring, however, are not public; their function is to improve the Government's activities and thus to strengthen its position. In contrast, in turning directly to the public, the opposition addresses the voters as it exercises its function of monitoring the Government. Criticism of the Government's activities has the ultimate aim of effecting a democratic change in power and winning the elections.
The Standing Orders give opposition factions more options than the governing party side with regard to certain institutions that monitor the Government. Interpellation within Parliament, questions, a proposal for a policy debate and the formation of a committee of inquiry are all considered primarily opposition institutions. Although the proportions differ from term to term, opposition MPs generally avail themselves of this option more often than those in the governing party.
Parliamentary monitoring of Government can be exercised by the plenary sitting, the committees and individual MPs. The Government can also be expressly monitored through sectoral institutions under parliamentary supervision, such as the State Audit Office and the parliamentary commissioners (ombudsmen).
The forms of monitoring over the Government and other institutions with various levels of strength are the detailed accounts, reports and briefings. The detailed accounts and reports are generally debated by the National Assembly and a vote is taken on whether or not to approve them. This may be restricted to a simple acknowledgement. Reports are mostly debated separately by the National Assembly, only seldom in tandem with a bill. An example of the latter is the State Audit Office's report on the final accounts bill. Written briefings serve to inform MPs and committees. Briefings are not discussed by the plenary sitting; they are debated case by case by the committees.
The Fundamental Law and various laws widely specify an obligation to issue detailed accounts. The Government shall provide a regular detailed account to the National Assembly. Generally at the initiative of the opposition, this usually takes place as part of a policy debate at least once a term, though it took place several times in the last term. An obligation to make a detailed account is prescribed in special topic areas for the Government and individual ministers by various laws and resolutions. Numerous obligations are placed on the Government within the context of the budget and final accounts bills to provide detailed accounts with regard to public finances.
The National Assembly primarily monitors the Government, but its monitoring extends to all institutions that have an obligation to report to Parliament. The heads of these institutions are by and large elected by the National Assembly. (Examples include the State Audit Office, the ombudsmen, the National Radio and Television Body, the executive boards for the media, and the National Justice Council.)
The National Assembly has also set down a reporting obligation for the heads of institutions with significance for the economy. These are appointees of the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister, such as the presidents of the Hungarian National Bank, Hungarian Competition Authority and Public Procurement Council and the Director General of the Energy Office.
Monitoring is made less effective by the fact that, though various laws prescribe the obligation to issue detailed accounts and reports again and again, most of the accounts, due to lack of time, are not placed on the orders of the day. These detailed accounts and reports tend to carry over to the next term, creating a backlog that imposes an ever larger burden on the National Assembly. In the 1998-2002 term, various institutions submitted a total of 130 accounts and reports, of which only 57 were discussed by the National Assembly. The proportion was better in the last term: of the 216 detailed accounts and reports submitted, 108 were discussed, and a further 50 accounts from among those that had been submitted in the previous term were also placed on the orders of the day, thus chipping away at the backlog. (A chart in the appendix summarises the total number of reports and detailed accounts submitted and approved between 1990 and 2006, broken down by term.)
Mindful of the practice in foreign parliaments, the House Committee introduced the institution of a policy debate in its position of September 1990. The set topic areas of legislation and calling to account as well as the limited timeframe for speaking prior to the orders of the day do not make it possible for the National Assembly to debate key policy issues informally and in a timely manner. The point of a policy debate is for the Government as well as the governing party and opposition MPs to express their opinions on a key policy issue set by a proposer. The opposition can force the Government to state a Government policy on a certain issue in public and to provide figures on Government measures which are then open to the crossfire of opposition criticism. In this respect it is not surprising that the significant majority of policy debates have been proposed by the opposition (75% between 1990-2006). The topic areas are by and large set by the opposition. On the other hand, the Government also has the option, if it deems it necessary, to propose a debate on a given question on a favourable date and thus turn to the voters through the publicity of Parliament. A policy debate can be proposed by the Government or one-fifth of the MPs.
The rules for policy debates differ in several respects from those for the discussion of proposals (e.g. bills). There is no written submission, though there may be background materials. Committees therefore need not prepare the debate, and there is no decision taken by the National Assembly after the debate. As the name indicates, the primary function of policy debates is to engage in a debate and to take a decision. The essential component of a policy debate is publicity. From 1990 to the present day, policy debates in the National Assembly have been broadcast live on television in whole or in large part.
Since 1990, a total of 60 policy debates have been held in the National Assembly, of which 27 were held in the last term; for the most part, these covered the implementation of the Government programme or a criticised area of Government policy: the economy, the state of healthcare and social security, the municipalities and agriculture. (The number of policy debates and a breakdown by sponsor have been summarised by term in the chart found in the appendix.)
The work of the committees makes it possible for parliamentary monitoring to be ongoing, more professional and therefore more effective. This holds particularly true for its monitoring of the Government.
In keeping with the provisions of the Standing Orders, the number of standing committees and their duties are adjusted to the structure of the Government and to the division of the ministries. This so-called adjustment and the division of labour between the committees founded on it establish the framework within which the committees monitor the Government and the ministers in particular.
The National Assembly does not set down the powers of standing committees beyond the indication of their duties in the names it gives them and beyond the provisions of law and the Standing Orders that refer to some of the committees. The division of labour between them has developed out of parliamentary practice.
Debating the various detailed accounts, reports and briefings represents an important area of monitoring through the committees. The committees discuss detailed accounts and reports submitted to the National Assembly in advance. The committees can submit draft resolutions to the National Assembly, in which they make proposals to determine measures to be taken and duties to be performed in connection with the presentation of detailed accounts. In each case, various laws and resolutions force the Government or a minister to give an account on the implementation of set Government duties directly to the competent committee, and not to the National Assembly. However, a committee can also request a briefing or hearing from the minister.
The monitoring activities of the committees reach beyond the ministries and extend to varying degrees to the institutions and offices with national jurisdiction that fall under the direct guidance or supervision of the Government or a minister. Examples of this include the National Security Office, the Information Office, the National Police Command and the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service. That is important because it is in this way, through the activities of the committees, that certain central institutions fall within the range of parliamentary monitoring and inquiry which would only be available to the plenary through the responsibility of the ministers who supervise them, i.e. they would only be indirectly available.
Every standing committee must set up a subcommittee which monitors the execution and socio-economic impact of laws. However, these subcommittees are barely in operation. In practice, little of the spirit of the Standing Orders is put into practice in this regard.
In the work of the parliamentary committees as of 1990, the institution of the committee hearing has gradually grown in importance. Three basic types can be distinguished:
It is the duty of the standing committees to hear candidates. The second type of hearing is also primarily characteristically practised by the standing committees - although not exclusively, as ad hoc committees also enjoy this option - while hearing evidence is rather tied to the work of committees of inquiry.
A pre-appointment hearing is required by the Standing Orders and various laws, but it can also be based on customary law. (For example, prior to an ambassador's appointment, it is the Foreign Affairs Committee that hears the candidate although this is not spelt out in any law.) Pre-appointment hearings are given to many candidates that the National Assembly itself has elected to their posts (e.g. the President of the State Audit Office and the ombudsmen). Others are appointed by the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister, and it is through the committee hearing that parliamentary monitoring is implemented (e.g. the President and Vice-Presidents of the Hungarian National Bank, the President and Vice-Presidents of the Hungarian Competition Authority and the Chair of the National Asset Management Council). Following Hungary's accession to the EU, the committee hearing was expanded to include future EU officials delegated by the Hungarian Government to the various EU institutions.
Since 1994, according to the Standing Orders, minister candidates must appear before committee prior to their appointment and the committee(s) must vote on whether or not to confirm that appointment. The order by which minister candidates appear before committee is set by the House Committee. It decides which minister candidate shall be heard by which committee(s) and takes a position on what areas the hearing can cover.
The second type of hearing includes the annual hearing on the work of the ministers. The hearing takes place before the committee(s) before which they appeared prior to their appointment. However, nothing stands in the way of a committee hearing a minister on another occasion on a set subject. A member of Government is under obligation to appear at a committee sitting and to provide any required information. According to an order that asserts the rights of the minority, a committee shall hold a hearing at the request of two-fifths of the committee members.
Everyone is under obligation to release information to a parliamentary committee, or to give evidence before it, when requested. The obligation to appear before a committee (the possibility of a hearing) can essentially be traced back to this provision of the Fundamental Law (obligation to appear before any committee ). The obligation to give evidence (to testify), however, as has previously been mentioned, is rather linked to the committees' investigative work.
According to the position of the Committee on the Standing Orders, the obligation to appear before committee must be met by everyone in person, but anyone permitted by law to send a deputy (for example the Prime Minister and ministers) may also do this as well. In the event that evidence is given, however, the person being summoned must also appear in person. A hearing must be held if two-fifths of the committee members put forward a motion, but a person can only be ordered to give evidence by resolution of the majority of the committee.
A hearing otherwise consists of the person being heard making a statement and expressing his position on the topic in question and then responding to committee members' questions.
Everyone is under obligation to provide parliamentary committees with the information they request and to give testimony before them. This guarantees very strong powers of monitoring and review both to standing and temporary committees.
The National Assembly can establish committees of inquiry (as discussed previously) for the purpose of investigating the responsibility of the Government in certain matters or for other reasons. These committees have wide-ranging powers of review; for example, they may summon anyone to appear before them and provide testimony and they may gain access to documents tied to the operation of the Government or to that of any of its institutions.
The Constitutional Court has ruled that the National Assembly has committed a constitutional omission since, particularly with regard to the protection of personal data, it has not enacted a law on committees of inquiry or on the investigative activities of the committees. To date, no such law has been made by the National Assembly.
At a plenary sitting of the National Assembly, traditional means of monitoring that have been available to individual MPs have included interpellations since 1848, regular questions since 1987 and instantaneous questions (minister's question time) since 1994, which are all broadcast live on television. Since 1994 it has been possible to submit questions in writing, which the respondent answers in writing.
Interpellations can be addressed to members of Government and to the Prosecutor General, whereas the list of those who can be asked questions is longer: in addition to those to whom an interpellation can be addressed, this includes the President of the State Audit Office, the parliamentary commissioners for civil rights and for national and minority rights and the President of the Hungarian National Bank. The interpellation has special weight in that the National Assembly can vote on the response provided if the MP does not accept it. If there is a "no" vote, the interpellation is addressed again before the plenary in the form of a report following the committee discussion. Depending on the recommendation of the committee, the National Assembly can at this time take one of the following decisions:
A peculiarity of the instantaneous questions (minister's question time) for the respondent, and at the same time a difficulty in it, is that the questions need not be submitted in writing in advance; it is only the topic that must be indicated. It is therefore only when the question is asked that it becomes clear. Since no decision is made on the response given to the question, this is rather a means of inquiry and of obtaining information.
In the past 16 years, there have been a total of 3292 interpellations, 2833 regular questions and 3029 instantaneous questions (minister's question time) at plenary sittings; as well, 14,062 questions have been submitted by MPs in writing. Opposition MPs have addressed 79% of the interpellations, 59% of the regular questions and 75% of the instantaneous questions. 95% of the written questions have also been submitted by opposition MPs. This also bears out the fact that, though there have been differences in proportion between the terms, it is the opposition that avails itself of this parliamentary means of monitoring more often and the parliamentary players see this primarily as an "opposition institution". At the same time the genre of the question also provides the Government with the opportunity, in answering a (governing party) MP's question, to provide information on an important matter of public interest, thus taking advantage of the publicity of Parliament.
There are other means available to MPs to monitor the Government. These include: speaking such that one is not on the orders of the day, and, especially the version of this that is broadcast on television and radio, speaking prior to the orders of the day. This latter option is due the faction leaders (and their deputies) while any MP can speak after the orders of the day. (Detailed information by term is in the chart found in the appendix.)
The Prime Minister's and ministers' option to speak prior to the orders of the day
Members of the Government can also speak prior to the orders of the day. Nearly all current issues or events of public interest can be cited as grounds for speaking. Faction leaders can reply to a minister's speech for two minutes each. Ministers and state secretaries have spoken prior to the orders of the day a total of 36 times in the second term of service, 15 in the third, 56 in the fourth and 13 so far in the current term. The right to speak prior to the orders of the day is also due the Prime Minister, but under more favourable terms than those enjoyed by ministers. His speech is not fixed to a timeframe. Depending on the length of his speech, faction leaders may reply for 5 or 8 minutes. Unlike the case of other speeches made prior to the orders of the day, the Prime Minister is also due the option to give an answer to a reply. There is usually a special reason for, and significance to, a Prime Minister's speech. Since 1990, Hungary's heads of government have availed themselves of this option with varying frequency and emphasis.
As with other parliaments, the National Assembly is assisted in its monitoring of the Government (and of institutions of state administration) by its monitoring institutions, the State Audit Office and the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights and his or her deputies. Parliament's monitoring institutions enjoy an independent legal status based on the Fundamental Law (indeed, their independence is guaranteed by it). Whereas the National Assembly enjoys its ability to monitor public administration institutions through the Government, its monitoring institutions exercise this ability directly and with a deeper and wider scope as well.
In Hungary, the State Audit Office was established in 1870 by the National Assembly and it remained in operation until 1949. After a hiatus of forty years, the State Audit Office, the National Assembly's own financial and economic monitoring institution, independent of the Government, was again in operation as of 1990. The Audit Office is the supreme central institution of state monitoring. It provides an opinion on the budget bill, and it monitors the execution of the Budget Act, the spending of public moneys and the management of state assets. The powers of the State Audit Office cover all management activities where public moneys are used and it can conduct inspections on all levels. The State Audit Office is only subordinated to the National Assembly and the laws, but independent of all other institutions.
The President and Vice-President of the State Audit Office, at the recommendation of the nominating committee formed for that purpose, are elected by the National Assembly for 12 years by a two-thirds vote of the MPs. No one can be nominated President or Vice-President if he has been a member of the Government in the previous four years or if he has held a top elected office in the national organisation of a party. The first President of the State Audit Office, between 1990 and 1996, was Dr. István Hagelmayer, an eminent professor of finance. As of December 1997, the office has been held by Dr. Árpád Kovács until December, 2009 and after this period, László Domokos was elected to be the President of the State Audit Office in July 2010. The President of the State Audit Office gives an annual detailed account of his work to the National Assembly.
In 1993, the National Assembly enacted a law on the parliamentary commissioner for civil rights, an institution which not only protects the rights of citizens but also serves to monitor institutions of state administration. The law also provides for a parliamentary commissioner for nationalities and minorities and for a data protection commissioner as well. The parliamentary commissioner for civil rights, his general deputy, the parliamentary commissioner for national and ethnic minority rights and the data protection commissioner are elected by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly at the recommendation of the President of the Republic. The National Assembly first elected parliamentary commissioners on 30 June 1995: Dr. Katalin Gönczöl, the parliamentary commissioner for civil rights; Dr. Péter Polt, her general deputy; Dr. Jenő Kaltenbach, the parliamentary commissioner for national and minority rights; and Dr. László Majtényi, the data protection commissioner. Their mandate is for six years. Dr. Kaltenbach was re-elected by the National Assembly in 2001, whereas new ombudsmen were elected for the remaining posts. The parliamentary commissioner for civil rights was then Dr. Barnabás Lenkovics, his general deputy Dr. Albert Takács, and the data protection commissioner was Dr. Attila Péterfalvi. In July 2007, the Hungarian National Assembly elected a new parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities, Dr. Ernő Kállai, and in September Dr. Máté Szabó was elected as the new parliamentary commissioner for civil rights. The ombudsmen first gave a detailed account of their activities to the National Assembly in 1997 and have done so every year since then. In 2011, according to the Act CXI of 2011 on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioners' - the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights, the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities and the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Rights of Future Generations - shall be ceased at the end of the year. From 1st January 2012 the legal successor of this institution is the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights.
The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights shall protect fundamental rights and shall act at the request of any person. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights shall examine or cause to examine any abuses of fundamental rights of which he or she becomes aware, and shall propose general or special measures for their remedy. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights and his or her deputies shall be elected for six years by a two-thirds vote of the Members of Parliament. The deputies shall defend the interests of future generations and the rights of nationalities living in Hungary. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights and his or her deputies shall not be affiliated to any political party or engage in any political activity. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights shall present to Parliament an annual report on his or her activities.
Although they cannot submit a bill to the National Assembly, the President of the State Audit Office and the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights can make recommendations in their detailed accounts or review reports and have even recommended that Parliament should enact particular laws and amend various others. Their recommendations can be formed into bills by the Government or the committees and submitted to the National Assembly. (Most recently the Public Procurement Act was amended by the National Assembly at the recommendation of the State Audit Office.) The President of the State Audit Office regularly send summary reports of their various reviews to the Speaker. These are most often placed on committee orders of the day and debated. The President of the State Audit Office and the parliamentary commissioners are invited to plenary sittings and standing committee sittings and can attend with the right of consultation. MPs can ask regular or instantaneous questions of the President of the State Audit Office and the ombudsmen. This happens very rarely. Since 1990, the President of the State Audit Office has had to respond to five questions; the ombudsmen have been asked a total of one question since 1995.