What’s going on in the Hungarian parliament?

According to the opposition terrible things! But one doesn't have to be an opposition member of parliament to notice that something is not quite right.

I must admit that all my life I have been allergic to meetings, especially the kind which were held periodically in some insignificant club whose members seemed to be experts on Robert's Rules of Order. For people not familiar with this official American guide to parliamentary rules, let me say a few words about this famous handbook. It was first published in 1876, but its fourth edition of 1915 is the basis of the modern revised text. The latest edition of the full text is 700 pages long. But if you think that this is, after all, a little too long, one can have an abbreviated version which has only 197 pages. Even that is too tedious as far as I am concerned. At one point in my life I tried to read it, so I know what I'm talking about.

I don't think that there is a Hungarian version of Robert's Rules of Order, but there is something called "House Rules" that is supposed to regulate parliamentary proceedings. However reluctantly, I have had to learn a few of these rules because otherwise I cannot understand exactly what's going on in the Hungarian Parliament. Anyone with a burning desire to learn more about the parliamentary House Rules can have the pleasure of reading them on the web site of the Hungarian Parliament. Moreover, if one wants to be a real expert he can read all the House Rules from 1848 on.

I know very little about parliamentary procedure, but I have learned at least one new thing lately. Proposals can emanate either from the government or from individual parliamentary members. The former process can be quite long and cumbersome. An appropriate ministry painstakingly, most likely over months or years, prepares a legislative proposal. Before submission, studies of the effects of the proposal must be calculated and discussions must take place with interest groups. So, for example, if the ministry of education (in the past because we don't have such a thing anymore!) proposes a change in the financing of public education, the ministry is obliged to sit down with representatives of teachers, local governments, and churches in charge of these institutions, student associations, and associations of parents. Only after listening to their objections, which the ministry either accepts or not, can the government bring the legislative proposal to the floor for debate.

Proposals by individual members of the House under normal circumstances have limited importance. For instance, changes to the Constitution are not introduced by individual members. Nor are such momentous proposals as granting citizenship to possibly millions of people who live in the neighboring countries. Nor proposals that drastically alter the status of the Hungarian media. But individual legislative proposals don't require any kind of prior discussion with people affected by these proposals, so the process is fast. The member turns the proposal into the Office of the Speaker of the House and, by golly, the next day it is on the floor and a few hours later the legislation sails through because of the two-thirds majority. Since the end of April hundreds of these individual proposals, all turned in by individuals from Fidesz, were submitted. Anyone interested in seeing the list of proposals can go to Parliament's web site. Out of these, eighteen were already voted on: six are brand new laws while twelve involve revisions to existing ones, including the Constitution.

First of all, it is almost certain that most of these so-called individual proposals have nothing to do with the members who submit them except that their names are placed at the bottom of the document and perhaps it bears their signatures. I say perhaps because there was at least one legislative proposal (T/189 concerning the nomination of members to the Constitutional Court) where there were two submitters János Lázár and Márta Mátrai, but Lázár forgot to sign it! Thus, one suspects that Fidesz chose that handy House regulation to push through legislation without the slightest regard for groups whose lives will be affected by it. It is also obvious to me at least that the proposals were centrally prepared and then distributed to Fidesz members almost at random. If this weren't the case, we wouldn't find the names of András Cser-Palkovics, earlier deputy spokesman of the party, and Antal Rogán, mayor of District V in Budapest, at the bottom of proposal T/363 that deals with freedom of the press and the rules concerning the content of the media. What do they have to do with either? Nothing. Most likely they got the text of the proposal with the instruction to submit it.

In this manner important pieces of legislation were signed and sealed even before the second Orbán government was sworn in. As for the fate of these proposals once they get to the floor, marathon sessions were introduced that sometimes last until two or three o'clock in the morning. One session was 16.5 hours long. The members check the list of submissions and within a few hours the proposal is already on the floor. Often they don't even have enough time to read the proposals. It has also happened that the opposition parties' designated speaker didn't have enough time to compose his rebuttal. At one point the majority party's members after a couple of hours became tired of discussing a proposal and simply voted to stop all that talk and, because they have a more than comfortable majority, the discussion came a screeching halt.

In the last month or so Parliament has been functioning like a legislative factory. Since by now it is pretty certain that László Sólyom will not serve another five-year term, he became brave and returned unsigned one of the hastily voted-on pieces of legislation for reconsideration that stipulated that from here on civil servants can be fired without cause, receiving only two months of compensation. Sólyom rightly pointed out that this piece of legislation is illegal in a country that belongs to the European Union. János Lázár generously promised that the government party will take a second look at it.

Civil organizations are now asking Sólyom not to sign the piece of legislation that Márta Mátrai submitted about the nomination of members to the Constitutional Court. Sólyom as a former chief justice might find the Fidesz proposal unacceptable. His dismissal as it looks now will not be exactly gentlemanly. Fidesz will announce its pick for Sólyom's successor on June 28 and by the next day the House will vote on the nomination. Sólyom will then have a couple of months in office to take revenge.