In dramatic scenes in Congress on Thursday, lawmakers from the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition walked out of bipartisan talks to decide the fate of 116 emergency decrees issued by President Alberto Fernández, accusing the government of disrespecting the Constitution.
Opposition leaders emerged from a meeting of the Bicameral Permanent Committee on Legislative Procedure saying they would not “underwrite" debate on 116 DNUs (Decretos de Necesidad y Urgencia). The officials revealed they had retired from sessions headed by deputy Marcos Cleri (Frente de Todos-Santa Fe) early in protest at the move.
The row kicked off less than a week after the ruling coalition suffered defeat in midterm elections, losing a number of key votes and consequently its majority in the Senate. Frente de Todos’ representatives endorsed the decrees during the committee meeting and want the upper house to vote on them while it still has a majority. Newly elected lawmakers are due to take their seats on December 10.
Following verbal clashes with government legislators, the opposition told the committee it would not validate the emergency decrees, considering that they do "not respect" the Constitution because "their time limits expired long ago without dedicating to them serious and meditated debate," in the words of deputy Pablo Tonelli (PRO-Federal Capital).
"We won’t underwrite anything and we disagree with … and impugn this messy summons to debate the 116 DNU," said the lawmaker, who also sits on the Council of Magistrates.
Previously, Tonelli had indicated that "the government will make these decrees valid but in an irregular fashion," a reference to their likely approval in the Senate.
Minutes later, deputy Gustavo Menna (Radical-Chubut) added: "Apart from the formal question, what is a basic issue is if we are going to uphold the separation of powers where legislating continues belonging to Congress or if we’re going to transfer that to the Executive Branch."
Following Menna’s words, the members of Juntos por el Cambio withdrew from the session of the Bicameral Permanent Committee on Legislative Procedure.
At a press conference, Senator Luis Naidenoff (Radical-Formosa) stated: "We reject the government’s aim to give express approval to two years of government by decree, rushed by the electoral result. It is a serious institutional outrage showing scorn for Congress, the Constitution and democratic rules."
Along these lines, lower house caucus chief Mario Negri (Radical-Córdoba) added: “What the government is seeking to do today is to squeeze the last drop of juice from the automatic majority they had in the Senate these last 38 years," considering that the government "has placed all its decrees in the same bag" and want them approved "within minutes."
Lower house caucus chief Cristián Ritondo (PRO-Buenos Aires Province), recalling the opposition victory in the midterms, said it was “a terrible response by the government to the message of the ballot-boxes.”
“These authoritarian sallies will only deepen the current socio-economic crisis repudiated by two-thirds of Argentines less than a week ago,” he declared.
Former Civic Coalition deputy Elisa Carrió issued a statement condemning the consideration of over 100 decrees, declaring that this "breaks up any possibility of agreements in Congress.”
“Kirchnerism has a capacity for damage until December 10," she pointed out, adding: "Most of the DNUs violate due legal procedure due to their content and the form in which their debate is sought. We are facing a clear violation of the rule of law.”
Quizzed about the row at a press conference later on Thursday, Gabriela Cerruti, spokesperson for President Alberto Fernández, accused the opposition of "making a huge bubble out of something customary in Congress.”
Cerruti described the decrees as “amendments which are passed annually to close out the year, simply a formality. They consist of 69 DNUs, seven promulgations of laws passed by one house and 40 delegated decrees, which the government has the prerogative to carry forward.”
The former deputy said that some of the decrees were related to the Covid-19 quarantine and had already expired.
“In the 40 delegated decrees, these delegate the increases in child and family benefits to the government,” she said.
“We’re not talking about 116 DNUs, we’re not talking about the president moving against Congress but about the prerogatives he has and the customs of the Bicameral Committee," she concluded.
Ruling coalition Senator Anabel Fernández Sagasti (Frente de Todos-Mendoza) also defended the decrees, justifying them with the exceptional situation of the pandemic.
“The opposition has a selective memory – in 2018, the Mauricio Macri government dictated Decree 27/18, repealing 19 laws and amending a further 150 with the excuse of making administration less bureaucratic. And they did that in just one decree without pandemic!” she hit back in a post on Twitter.
“The presentation of the opposition is schizophrenic. The constitutional requirements are being fulfilled. Perhaps the contents of some decrees bother them, such as double severance [pay] to avoid dismissals during the pandemic,” agreed Senador Mariano Recalde (Frente de Todos-Federal Capital).
“Of course it can bother them since they already disagree with simple severance,” he remarked.