legislative deference

Everyone else on the net tries to be the first to break the news.  I prefer to think about stories for a while before I comment.  Here is another post about something that is quite out of date.


In a commentary published in last Tuesday’s United Daily News, Su Chi 蘇起 discussed Taiwan’s decline in international competitiveness.  One of the reasons he cites is that Taiwan has acquired a reputation as being an unreliable country in international negotiations.  Several times, the government has negotiated an agreement, and the legislature has delayed ratification, demanded significant modifications, or simply refused to pass it altogether.  Now the legislature is demanding to review the Service Trade Agreement clause by clause, and Su Chi argues that this type of action is eroding Taiwan’s international credibility, which in turn erodes Taiwan’s competitiveness.

I respect Su Chi quite a lot.  He is not a kneejerk ideologue but rather a thoughtful person who quite commonly transcends the neat pro-China / anti-China boxes.  However, on this question, he is simply wrong in placing the blame on the legislature.  More generally, Su’s attack reflects broader shortcomings of the Ma administration, including a strong preference for technocrats, a lack of respect for elected representatives, and a disregard for politics.


The legislature’s insistence on an active role in ratifying international agreements is not eroding Taiwan’s credibility or competitiveness.  If Taiwan’s credibility actually suffers, the blame should fall squarely on the executive branch.  The executive branch knows that anything that they sign needs to pass the legislature.  It is their responsibility to be sure that they don’t sign anything that the legislature won’t ratify.  The executive branch should be in constant contact with legislative leaders while negotiating deals.  They should constantly be asking whether each clause will cause a popular backlash and whether legislators might insist on changing; they should constantly be counting votes; and they should never sign anything that doesn’t have enough votes to pass.  If they insist on signing something that the legislature does not support, they have no right to be surprised, indignant, or petulant when the legislature demands modifications.  If the executive branch signs an agreement without first ensuring that the legislature is on board, then it is the executive that is responsible for any delays or modifications to the agreement.  If Taiwan’s credibility is damaged, that is because the executive branch irresponsibly signed an unrealistic pact.

In fact, Taiwan’s negotiators don’t routinely stay in touch with legislative leaders.  Executive branch negotiators make agreements according to their judgment of what is best for Taiwan and then send the final pact to the legislature to be rubber stamped.  Most bureaucrats would bristle at the notion that they should allow legislators to influence their dealings.  That would simply open the door to pork, favoritism, parochialism, and payoffs to special interests.  From the bureaucratic perspective, elected representatives are dirty, corrupt, and unable to see the big picture.  It is far better to keep them out of the process.

This is a fundamentally undemocratic perspective.  Bureaucrats are themselves often beholden to special interests, though they are usually far less aware of this than legislators.  At any rate, the legislature has a different, broader legitimacy than the executive branch.  The executive gets its legitimacy from the presidential election, but the president ultimately represents only a plurality of the electorate.  Society is complex and pluralistic, and many voices that are shut out of the executive branch can only be heard through the legislature.  Some of these voices may appear to some to be “parochial,” “narrow,” or “special interests.”  However, one person’s special interest is another person’s legitimate cause.  Legislators’ careers depend much more than bureaucrats’ on ensuring that voters do not feel they are being treated unfairly.  Bureaucrats routinely envision the world in idealistic, abstract, or simplistic terms, and can sometimes design policy packages that place undue burdens on particular segments of society.  Legislators are more grounded in the messiness of actual society, and they often soften the rough edges of those policy packages by demanding changes.  The easiest way to see this is to think about extreme cases.  In some authoritarian states, well-meaning bureaucrats have implemented tragically horrifying policies, demanding entire populations relocate, causing famine by ordering boneheaded agricultural policies, and wasting public funds by building grandiose planned cities that no one wants to live in.  (For a depressingly long list of examples, see James C. Scott’s wonderful book, Seeing Like a State.)  These sorts of debacles happen far less frequently in democracies because the elected legislatures step in to stop utopian visions from going through.  Democracy demands that legislatures, with their broader base, also ratify important national decisions.  Getting things through the legislature is not simply an inconvenience; it is a fundamental stage in the democratic process.

More generally, the Ma administration routinely expresses a disdain for “politics” and an admiration for “governing.”  The famous bureaucrats of the Chiang Ching-kuo era, such as Sun Yun-hsuan 孫運璿, Lee Kuo-ting 李國鼎, and CCK himself, are held up as paragons of wisdom, foresight, selflessness, moderation, vision, and fairness.  In contrast, the elected politicians of the democratic era seem small-minded, selfish, petty, and short-sighted.  Of course, the CCK-era technocrats didn’t have to ask the population for power.  In a democratic society, using power wisely is important.  Creating that power is even more important.  Democrats must organize networks, articulate positions, make compromises with other ambitious politicians, and win the support of large numbers of voters before they ever get the chance to govern.  Moreover, after they implement a policy, they must retain power in order to protect and nurture that policy.  Politics – creating power – must come before governance – using power.  Demanding that elected politicians defer to bureaucrats is simply unreasonable and undemocratic.


The current service trade agreement is a repeat of the same old story.  The KMT-led bureaucracy has negotiated a deal with little to no input from the legislature, and now it is demanding that the legislature ratify that deal without any substantive review.  If the legislature exercises its rights to demand changes, the Ma administration should not whine about how the legislature is eroding Taiwan’s international credibility.  The responsibility lies entirely with the executive branch.

2 Responses to “legislative deference”

  1. Mike Says:

    Nice piece.

    “At any rate, the legislature has a different, broader legitimacy than the executive branch…Society is complex and pluralistic, and many voices that are shut out of the executive branch can only be heard through the legislature.”

    Would this be the essentially the same sort of reasoning/ idea as “parliamentary sovereignty” as seen in parliamentary democracies?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Mike, the broader (not necessarily better) legitimacy of a legislature (relative to an executive) is something different than parliamentary sovereignty. Almost all modern constitutions state that sovereignty rests with the people of the country. This is common in both presidential and parliamentary systems. The ancient, unwritten of the United Kingdom is different. In the UK, they have evolved the idea that sovereignty rests in the parliament. That means that the parliament can do anything. Its decisions cannot be reversed by any other body, such as a constitutional court, a popular referendum, a royal veto, or anything else. Parliament can change the constitution at any time by a simple majority, so the constitution merely represents what the current majority in parliament wants. To me, this is not a great setup. I think some things really should require a supermajority. Really, the whole UK setup is full of bad ideas, and I have no idea how it has survived for so long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: