Liberia: The 54th Legislature Has Failed the Liberian People
.... The failures of the National Legislature to effectively activate its oversight roles over the executive is the reason why Rep. Rustolyn Dennis of Montserrado County District #4 doesn’t know that in the 2022 national budget, US$ 64.3 million was approved for the national legislature, but the 2023 budget shows US$65.6 million was captured as outturn (The payment of expenditure in the legislature budget).
In May 2022, I wrote an article titled The National Legislature’s Budget and Waste where I revealed how the Liberian lawmakers were eating Liberia’s wealth through insane salaries, allowances, etc. In the article, I argued that a recurring theme of Liberia’s 17 years of post-conflict democracy is the blurred lines between the executive and the legislative branches of government. Today, Liberians are seeing serious collusion between Liberian President George Weah and the National Legislature, with the ultimate goals of waste and misplaced priorities in the governing of the state.
In Liberia, the National Legislature makes the laws, has oversight functions over the executive, while the executive implements the laws, and the judiciary interprets them. Unfortunately, the executive branch has attracted all the attention and enjoys all the influence over and above the other two tiers.
This reality has made some people question the relevance of our legislature and not reckon with it, especially in the recent past where, unfortunately, the National legislature looks more like a student dormitory of equals, with no exciting debates, bickering on the floor, and or innovative vision for the development of this country.
On April 2023, the US Ambassador, Michael McCarthy, through a press release lamented Liberia's misplaced priorities under the George Weah-led administration. According to Ambassador McCarthy, “While hospitals went without, and service centers withered on the vine, the 30 senators and the 73 representatives spent sixty-five million US dollars feathering their own nests.”
Ambassador McCarthy also questioned, “Why are legislators and ministers, those living on the top of the heap, given annual duty-free imports that deny the LRA much-needed additional revenue?” The controversy Ambassador McCarthy's disclosure generated has shaken the country especially the clear absurdity surrounding the monetary compensation of lawmakers while health centers around the country lie in poor condition.
Ironically, Montserrado County District #4 lawmaker, Rep. Rustolyn Dennis accused the US Ambassador, McCarthy of lying about the 54th legislature’s budget. According to Representative Dennis, Ambassador McCarthy's press release was highly misleading and came as a result of what she described as his misunderstanding of how the Legislature's budgets work.
She writes” Your judgment is not only unfair but highly misleading in some areas. You have confused the citizens more than alerted them. Let me state unequivocally herein, our budget we passed is never US$65m. Next the 40m [plus] that is passed is not for 30 Senators and 73 Representatives, rather it’s for the over four thousand workers in central administration and all the legislative staffers for each member. Your failure to analyze those funds led to your blanket categorization of the legislature."
Truth be told, the National Legislature has powers under the Constitution to make this country better but it appears to have been caught in its own web of malfeasance that has rendered it compromised and unwilling to do the needful. Rather, it has insisted and demonstrated over time that it is simply a part of government and cannot see any fault in the operations of the executive. This is the kernel of the legislature’s failing and it has badly rubbed off on the country.
The failures of the National Legislature to effectively activate its oversight roles over the executive is the reason why Rep. Rustolyn Dennis of Montserrado County District #4 doesn’t know that in the 2022 national budget, US$ 64.3 million was approved for the national legislature, but the 2023 budget shows US$65.6 million was captured as outturn (The payment of expenditure in the legislature budget).
It is the failure of our representatives and senators to conduct legislative oversight that led to the revelation of Ambassador McCarthy that “ most of the County Service Centers, and in 2022, NONE had received any of their budget allocation (usually around US$13,333). One Center has not printed marriage certificates for four years because the printer broke, and their last allocation was received five years ago. Hospitals on which lives depend, where outbreaks are prevented and suffering is alleviated, did not receive any portion of the US$100,000 or more appropriated by the legislature for them to operate. “
Obviously, these vituperations coming from Rep. Rustolyn Dennis are less than sincere and are probably intended for the gallery, given the erstwhile disposition of the lawmakers to the executive arm. The National Legislature including legislators from opposition political parties cannot extricate themselves from the failings of the government it is an integral part of. Not only Rep. Rustolyn Dennis's comment is puerile, but it is also offensive to the common sensibility of Liberians more so as the legislative and executive branches of government are jointly and severally liable for the bastardized state of the nation. An attempt by either to exculpate itself is not feasible.
Notably, of the three arms of government: Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary; the legislature is the most powerful. Apart from its lawmaking and oversight responsibilities, the National Legislature, to a reasonable extent, determines the composition of the top members of the executive arm of government except for the offices of the President and Vice President. This is because all ministerial nominees and heads of ministries, commissions, departments, agencies, and even the judiciary, must first receive its approval before they can substantively assume office.
Additionally, an institution that enjoys the exclusive prerogative to empower and enlarge the powers of the court combines the executive and judicial powers to investigate, arrest, summon, and examine any person and reserves the right to fix the remuneration of all three arms of government cannot claim to be handicapped. The constitution virtually placed the entire country under the control of the National Legislature. The only snag is that the National Legislature as presently constituted lacks the political will to put Liberia first!
The legislative arm of government at all levels has been slothful in discharging its oversight duties judiciously and effectively. The occasional instances of disaffection between the executive and legislature have largely been for selfish political gains rather than in the public interest.
Liberia is under dire economic constraints due to its huge debt profile and debt serving, yet the National Legislature continues to approve further borrowings without interrogating the utilization of previous ones and the implications of accumulating debts with compound and multiple interests.
Instead of taking up their assignments seriously, the legislators have simply resorted to theatrics.
The President traveled abroad often and stayed for weeks or months, without legislative involvement only to stay abroad and write them an extension of stay abroad. Weah’s non-committal attitude is a direct consequence of the laxity of the National Legislature. Otherwise, a proactive National Legislature would have commenced impeachment proceedings against the Chief Executive for recently violating the code of conduct.
It is not fallacious that the National Legislature is too weak to fight corruption and wasteful expenditure. The true position is that the legislators have refused to do the needful because they are equally caught in the web of corruption at the capitol building.
Furthermore, the National Legislature is partly responsible for the ballooning cost of governance in Liberia. The Liberian lawmakers are among the highest paid in West Africa. The legislative budgets have tended to increase over the years. An important hike occurred in 2009 when the total legislature budget rose from US$9.4 million in 2007 to US$19 million in 2009. By 2011, this budget stood at US$26 million.
By 2013, the legislature budget was US$ 39 million, and by 2015, the budget was at US$54 million. In 2016 and 2017, the budget was around US$47 million, and US$44.6 million in 2020. In 2021, it was 39.6 million. In 2022, another hike occurred to the tune of US$65.6 million, the highest in the history of Liberia, and in 2023, the legislature budget is 42.7 million.
In 2021, Senator Darius Dillion reported through his asset declaration that lawmakers earned as much as $126,588! Apart from bonuses and other incentives, the annual salary of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is US$245,540 while the annual salary of the President Pro Tempore is US$254,250. Ironically, the Speaker of the United States House Of Representatives' annual salary is US 223,500 while the salary of the US Senate President Pro Tempore is U $193,400.
They avoid the interrogations of Liberians on their huge emoluments, allowances, and perquisites of office which in itself bloats the cost of governance that the legislature accuses the executive of perpetrating. They arrogate unto themselves the unconstitutional power to pad the budget in their favor but fail to render an account of how they utilize humongous amounts for their so-called legislative engagement funds, etc.
Indeed, the National Legislature cannot free itself from the stunted development of the country of its failure to ensure that the executive arm lives up to its responsibilities. The legislators have proven to be self-serving and lacking patriotism.
Sadly, Liberians are equally blameworthy due to their passiveness. They fail to recognize the inherent power they collectively possess in determining the composition of the ruling class. Liberians should leverage the 2023 presidential and legislative elections to carefully elect deserving leaders while those that are responsible for the near-collapse of the country are shown the exit door. We say thank you, Ambassador Michael A. McCarthy. Well done.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely of the author and do not necessarily represent that of the Daily Observer newspaper.