The State Duma has officially started its spring session. Vyacheslav Volodin, State Duma Speaker, addressed the plenary session saying that “this session is a crucial stage of our work, and it lays the foundation for years to come”. The spring parliamentarian session will include 40 plenary meetings and 6 weeks of work in the regions. Rethinking Russia think tank interviewed Alexander Pozhalov, Research Director at ISEPR Foundation, about the main objectives and challenges the State Duma will be confronted with in its spring session.
This is the first full-scale session for State Duma deputies of the new convocation. It will end only in late July for the first time ever. The deputies will have their hands full as they are to reach the objectives set out by the President in his December Address to the Federal Assembly. Moreover, the agenda will embrace numerous bills on sensitive social issues.
The 2016 elections shortened the autumn parliamentarian session to two months and a half. The deputies focused on work-related procedural matters and government-initiated bills. The elections were rescheduled and were due on September instead of December, which allowed the newly elected MPs to study the draft budget for the next three years and the accompanying draft legislation on social issues proposed by the executive branch at length. However, they had little time to devise and pass their own bills.
The major task for the spring session is to demonstrate to their electorate and society at large the superior quality of the parliament-initiated draft laws. To this end, the MPs of the seventh convocation need to move through three stages.
Stage 1 will see order and discipline imposed in MPs’ ranks and the professionalization of deputies.
This task was successfully accomplished in the autumn session. The measures already implemented and supported by the deputies and, above all, voters included mandatory participation in plenary sessions and committee work, fines for non-attendance, preliminary deliberations of parliamentary initiatives within the faction to forestall the use of the “mad printer” label for contentious legislative activity. The approval ratings of the State Duma as an institution were the highest late in 2016 as Russia’s society saw MPs at work, VCIOM concludes.
Stage 2 includes making necessary arrangements and establishing procedures conducive to thorough and nuanced legislation.
Although the State Duma has placed strong emphasis on this issue over the recent months, the process is yet to be completed. Although relevant normative acts and regulations issued by the executive have become subject to closer parliamentary scrutiny both in terms of their content and the timescale, the effectiveness of the mechanism remains to be seen. Besides, the Duma’s senior parliamentarians managed to receive extra funding for external expertise of draft legislation in 2017, which is allotted to every Duma faction and committee. However, the expert councils under the Speaker and committees are yet to be established. Moreover, the task of incorporating a new Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation – due to start taking shape since February – into the judgment-based supervision system and of guaranteeing close examination of draft amendments before the decisive second hearings lies ahead. The altered protocol appears necessary to stop undesirable practices of expedited decision-making at the second and third hearings, specifically when second hearings introduce significant amendments. Actually, such practices set the stage for vague and ambiguous legislation by the State Duma. Senior parliamentarians are searching for the ways to remove the burden of two thousand “frozen” and largely outdated bills, the legacy from the previous six Dumas. At the same time, they must preserve pluralism and parliamentary deliberations of every initiative.
Stage 3 involves the State Duma’s most purposeful activities concerning particular bills, which, if inappropriately implemented, can fuel popular discontent. This part is the easiest for the public to review.
This list includes government bills to impose congestion charges and paid parking regulations, to supervise allotments, to help tenants move from substandard housing, to settle the issue of free housing privatization, to introduce the federal information systems of school attendance or child accounting etc. Russia’s society and mass media have formed many negative expectations about these initiatives. It is necessary to allay fears through law, with the relevant normative acts of the government and regional authorities leaving no scope for controversy.
The Duma’s record of tackling the sensitive legislation in the spring session will affect public trust this year and will be decisive for the parliamentarians’ attempts to have the government’s regard in future.