Brazil's scandal-plagued Senate
House of horrors
Jul 9th 2009 | SÃO PAULO
From The Economist print edition
What Britain’s MPs might learn from Brazilian Senators
THE president of Brazil’s Senate sits in a fine blue leather chair designed by Oscar Niemeyer, a celebrated Brazilian architect. Comfortable it may be, but its occupants have also found it to be an insecure perch. Three senate presidents have been suspended or have resigned because of scandals in the past eight years. Now a fourth, José Sarney, a former president of Brazil and part-time novelist, is teetering.
The Senate has just 81 members but somehow they require almost 10,000 staff to take care of them. Many of these are appointed as favours to senators’ friends or political supporters. One former staffer says that his fellow-employees used to say that the senate was like a mother to them. Others liken it to a country club. The benefits of membership include free health insurance for life for all senators and their families, generous pension arrangements and housing allowances. This much was already familiar to Brazilians and, perhaps, not so different from the goings on in many other legislatures around the world.
But the past few months have brought new revelations. The police are investigating some 660 “secret acts” passed since 1995 which have awarded jobs and pay rises to members of staff. Senators have given free air tickets to relatives and claimed housing allowances for houses they did not live in. Senate staff were paid overtime even when the chamber was in recess. The head of the senate administration, Agaciel Maia, was revealed to own a house worth 5m reais ($2.5m) that was registered in his brother’s name and thus not declared to the tax authorities.
Lots of senators, more or less across the political spectrum, are at fault. When the leader of the opposition Party of Brazilian Social Democracy went on a jaunt to Paris, for example, the Senate paid his hotel bill. (He says this was a “loan”.) It therefore might seem unfair that Mr Sarney is under pressure to resign.
Yet he cannot plead ignorance of the Senate’s workings. This is his third spell as its president. During a previous stint in the blue chair he appointed Mr Maia to his lucrative position. A grandchild of Mr Sarney’s received business from the Senate (although he was not its president at the time). Mr Sarney also omitted from his declaration of assets to the federal electoral tribunal a big house he owns in Brasília.
Mr Sarney, who has spent 50 years in public life, is a survivor. He will probably keep his post. He remains a power in the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), a catch-all outfit that is an important part of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s governing coalition. Lula wants Mr Sarney to swing the weight of the PMDB, and its patronage machine, behind Dilma Rousseff, the probable candidate of the ruling Workers’ Party in the presidential election next year.
Lula has said that Mr Sarney deserves more respect, and has blamed the press for whipping up scandal. But at a time when the economy is only just emerging from recession, the saga of the “secret acts” has reminded Brazilians that their politicians never impose austerity on themselves. It may also have reminded them of the flaws of some of Lula’s allies, and his willingness to shut his eyes to scandal when it suits him.