Thursday, June 21, 2007

An Outbreak of Nobbery

While I do not consider myself an expert on Colombian politics, I am learning a great deal. The current Colombian constitution is about 16 years old and the government has a bi-cameral, balance of power type system that the US has. This is no surprise. The US was involved in developing the constitution in 1990-1991 and the results are telling. That being said, just like in early US history, there have been significant changes to the Constitution over the last decade and a half, most notably, in changing the term limit rule on the presidency to allow Uribe to run and hold a second term.

In any event, I wanted to relate short history of what happened in the Colombian Congress this week. With the backing of Uribe and a strong majority in both the House and Senate, the Congress passed a law that would grant equality to gays and lesbians, including health benefits, social security, and inheritance rights for long-term couples. There were some differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, however, so they had been caucusing to create a uniform law to submit to Uribe.

Colombia would have been the first country in South America to have such a progressive policy and the second in this hemisphere. I obviously would have supported the measure on its merits, but it also would have had the extra pleasure of being a fat slap in the face of the Democratic Congress/Bush Administration if a strategic ally that we have criticized for human rights violations had stronger gay rights laws than the US.

(I say this not because I disagree with the criticism/hold on military assistance. I obviously agree with those actions. I say this because it’s absurd that the “leader of the free world” is so permissive of discrimination against gays and lesbians.)

At any rate, I’ve been using the phrase “would have been” because by some odd twist, the measure failed yesterday. The question is obvious: How could a measure with overwhelming support in both the legislative bodies and the presidency fail?

The answer is nobbery. Apparently, in the Colombian Congress it is traditional to vote in “blocks” instead of on an individual basis. This means that instead of actually showing up to vote, you essentially cede your voting power to your block, something akin to proxy voting. This is the normal practice. Yesterday, a group of conservative lawmakers clearly opposed to the measure requested and received the less common, but equally legitimate, roll call vote on the measure. The wisdom of this move was obvious. Of 102 Senators, only 63 were present for the vote. The measure subsequently failed, 34-29.

There is talk of the measure being revived in July. I know little of that process. Maybe they will have to start from scratch, reopen debate, allow for amendments, etc. Maybe it will pass, maybe it won’t. I really don’t know. I am hopeful that it will pass, but it’s never good to allow the opposition more chances to derail good legislation.

Of course, the pro-gay rights groups are faulting Uribe for not backing the bill strongly enough. But, in the end, the lesson, as always, is that politicians are inherently lazy people. Had the bill’s supporters merely bothered to show up for the vote, this discussion would not be happening. Instead, I’d be ridiculing the US about their lack of equivalent legislation.



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