Saturday, May 18, 2024

OP-ED | 04-05-2024 05:43

Loading the bases

With a government yet to complete its first 150 days and Senate passage of Milei’s mega-law still lying ahead, we are not even at the end of the beginning.

If Bismarck said: “International treaties are like sausages, you would not want to know what goes into them,” much the same goes for parliamentary legislation in general and the bumper package of laws passed by Congress early this week in particular. Critics might highlight the gross inconsistencies in the reform drive (with tobacco excise and omission of the Tierra del Fuego tax breaks among their leading targets) and mock the omnibus bill for being more of a taxi or even bicycle after the elimination of around 60 percent of its original clauses. But there is such a thing as the whole being more than the sum of its often unedifying parts.

We need read no further than the very first article: “Declare a public emergency in administrative, economic, financial and energy matters for the period of a year” to see what huge powers Congress is delegating to Javier Milei’s “chainsaw” Presidency (even if the original bill proposed “legislative prerogatives” for two years in 11 spheres also including fiscal, pension, security, defence, public services, health and social matters). The past 40 years have shown any administration to enjoy huge margins to regulate or deregulate (more often the former until now) even without such rubber-stamping – like nature, power abhors a vacuum and governments are elected to govern. The seven eliminated areas will do little to clip Milei’s wings if he retains delegated powers over the economy and the public sector. 

Milei would be contradicting his own anarcho-capitalist philosophy and his mandate from the voters were he to read his sweeping powers over the economy as intensified state control (although there was something of that in his handling of the prepaid healthcare plans) but he is being handed the potential for drastic state reform. Almost any state department may be obliterated altogether, apart from a protected list (including the CONICET scientific research council, various public health institutes and the INTA institute of agricultural technology, among others) which deputies were careful to insert into the legislation but even here there are various taps which can be turned on or off. The list of state companies which may be privatised has been considerably trimmed (with Banco Nación perhaps the main recent subtraction) but any branch of the state may be placed under trusteeship except for Congress and the Supreme Court due to the separation of powers and the recent battleground of the public universities, which enjoy statutory autonomy.

So far, so good for Milei’s hopes but quite apart from the formidable obstacle still lying ahead in the Senate (with court rulings a further sword of Damocles) there is the question of whether this government is up to its massive mission. Just as critics of health food say that you need to be healthy in the first place to live off it, so the creation of an efficient state is difficult without a state which is already pretty efficient and Milei’s ramshackle, amateurish, faction-ridden outfit hampered by parliamentary and territorial weakness raises doubts on that score. To boot, the President has already shown us enough of his character to place a question-mark over whether he is worthy of wielding such power.

Yet quite apart from a government whose forceful style is in inverse proportion to its fragile basis, it may be asked whether the stage of state reform is not too big for its actors. The 30 hours of debate in Congress in the marathon session last Monday and Tuesday might sound like a lot but it is dwarfed by the sheer scale of even a downsized 'Ley de Bases'/omnibus bill. An in-depth discussion would have been impossible in the best of cases (with an average of less than eight minutes per clause) but the debate was almost bereft of any substance, constantly simplifying these complex issues when not giving way to mere slogans and vulgar insults. All too often a vote was decided by support for or antipathy to the government rather than the merits of the case – thus in what other country in the world could you find the far left voting against progressive income tax, thus denying the state revenue to improve social welfare benefits and pensions on behalf of giving a free ride to the top six percent with a tax floor of almost two million pesos? If anything, the media coverage has been either even more simplistic or engrossed in specific aspects of this vast legislation, all of which gives the general public at large little chance of understanding what is really at stake.

But with a government yet to complete its first 150 days and Senate passage of Milei’s mega-law still lying ahead, we are not even at the end of the beginning.       


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