Parliaments worldwide perform three core functions: to represent citizens interests, to pass laws and to monitor the actions of the government. They perform a legislative function because, in addition to introducing legislation on their own, they have the power to amend, approve or reject government draft laws. This function is strongly linked to the representation function in that it is through the will of the people that the parliament receives its authority in democratic countries.
The exact means by which a parliament is engaged in the lawmaking process varies depending on the type of parliamentary system. In Westminister systems (i.e. - those that derive from the British system), the executive branch of government develops most draft laws and the main role of parliament is to review, amend and pass laws. Individual MPs can introduce draft laws (known as Private Members Bills) but few of these draft laws reach the committee stage and even fewer are ever passed.
In presidential systems, individual MPs have a greater opportunity to produce draft laws before they are reviewed, amended and passed. Some hybrid systems have developed other methods of developing draft laws, including providing authority to parliamentary committees to develop and introduce draft laws and, in rare cases, some parliaments allow citizen initiatives to introduce draft laws for debate.
In most parliaments with permanent committees, proposed legislation is introduced formally on the floor of the house, and then referred to one or more committees with jurisdiction over the legislation. Westminster systems typically hold draft laws on the floor for a second reading and a debate and vote on the draft law "in principle". After this, draft laws are referred to committees where committee members typically work on technical details and amendments.
In presidential systems, draft laws introduced are immediately referred to committee, and those draft laws over which more than one committee has jurisdiction may be referred to multiple committees. An education draft law with financial implications, for example might be referred to both the education and finance committees. In political systems with a very large volume of legislation (more than 10,000 draft laws are introduced each year in the US Congress, for example), most legislation never gets beyond committee.
If the parliament has two houses, draft laws may move through each house simultaneously, or through the houses consecutively. Two house parliaments generally devise methods of reconciling different versions of the draft laws.
For a parliament to be able to efficiently fulfill its legislative function, MPs must have the capacity to read and review draft legislation and amendments in order to interpret any policy changes and analyse proposed new rules. The staff of the parliament, especially committee staff, need to be well trained in legal drafting and legislative review processes. Committees also often rely on external expertise to assess the exact scope of a draft law and its consequences from diverse perspectives (for example legal, social, economic or environmental). This external expertise can be from within respective political parties or from academia or civil society.
Legislative strengthening programs for parliaments may have a key component that targets lawmaking capabilities. This type of assistance might include developing parliament-based research services, strengthening library and information systems, supporting the identification and engagement of expert consultants to committees, developing university intern programs for assisting committees, and strengthening legislative-civil society partnerships.
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National Democratic Institute
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