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Being the essential working bodies of the National Assembly, the main role of the standing committees is to prepare the legislative debate in plenary sitting. The importance of their role was strengthened by the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008, which introduced rules whereby the bills debated in plenary sitting are those which emanate from the work in committee
However, far from confining themselves to this role, the standing committees having been extending their sphere of influence, much like in many other parliaments, to activities in other areas, including keeping the National Assembly informed and monitoring the Government.
I. – THE COMMITTEES: WHERE THE LEGISLATIVE DEBATE IN PLENARY SITTING IS PREPARED
1. – Number and powers of the committees
The framers of the Constitution of 1958 attempted to strictly limit the influence of the standing committees. This explains:
- The stress placed by the Constitution itself on the number of standing committees. This number was limited to six and was thus distinctly lower than that in the other parliaments of the European Union. This clearly marked a break with the practice of the Fourth Republic with its 18 committees;
- The determination to make referral to an ad-hoc committee the rule and referral to a standing committee the exception (see article 43 of the Constitution which provided that Government and Members’ bills are sent for examination to an ad-hoc committee specially set up for that purpose or if this is not the case, then to one of the six standing committees). Parliamentary practice however did not follow this provision, because the ad-hoc committees proved difficult to handle for a variety of reasons. (For the Government there was the loss of the reference points of the standing committees as well as the fact that the standing committees operated in parallel. In addition, the standing committees themselves put a break on the setting-up of a body which usurped part of their prerogatives whilst the whole legislative procedure was slowed down by the fact that, as an ad-hoc committee ceased to exist once the bill referred to it had been passed, it was in its interest to extend the period of examination of said bill).
The constitutional revision of July 23, 2008, increased the maximum number of standing committees from six to eight and, so as to consecrate a common practice, made referral of a bill to a standing committee the rule and the setting-up of an ad-hoc committee, the exception.
Article 36 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly which states the names and the areas of responsibility of the standing committees was thus modified accordingly. The increase from six to eight committees was introduced by dividing the two committees which each represented a quarter of the members of the Assembly: the Cultural, Family and Social Affairs Committee and the Economic, Environmental and Regional Planning Committee. The result is a more even distribution of M.P.s between the eight committees, so that each committee is now composed of one eighth of the members of the Assembly (i.e. 73):
- Cultural and Education Affairs Committee
- Economic Affairs Committee
- Foreign Affairs Committee
- Social Affairs Committee
- National Defence and Armed Forces Committee
- Sustainable Development, Spatial and Regional Planning Committee
- Finance, General Economy and Budgetary Monitoring Committee
- Constitutional Acts, Legislation and General Administration Committee
As before, each M.P. may only be a member of one standing committee.
2. – Setting-up and working of the committees
At the beginning of each term of Parliament, and from then on, every year at the beginning of the ordinary session, the National Assembly appoints, on the basis of the proportional representation of the political groups and upon the nomination of the chairmen of these groups, the members of the standing committees. Each committee then appoints a bureau to run it. This bureau is made up of a chairman and four deputy chairmen and four secretaries. The Finance Committee also appoints a general rapporteur and may only elect as its chairman, a member of an opposition group. The make-up of the bureau of each committee ensures that every endeavour is carried out so that it reflects the political make-up of the Assembly and represents all its opinions.
Each committee has at its disposal:
- Its own meeting room with a public address system and the equipment necessary for the digital recording of debates (this is an essential guarantee in case the minutes are being contested);
- Its own team of parliamentary civil servants led by a head of secretariat. The committee secretariats have a staff of 149 of whom 50 are advisers (as opposed to 16 at the beginning of the Fifth Republic);
- A legislative studies and monitoring unit (except for the defence and foreign affairs committees which have the support of the other units in the International and Defence Affairs Department) which provides support, in particular, for the monitoring missions of the committees. The overall staff for these units numbers 91 civil servants, of whom 27 are advisers;
- Specific financial means allowing it, for example, to cover travel expenses and study costs.
- The standing committees are extremely active and this is borne out by the following data pertaining to the 2008-2009 session:
- 588 meetings making up a total of 914 hours (of which 156 hours were given over to the budget debate);
- - 250 hearings (including 120 with members of the Government);
- - 316 reports filed.
The standing committees are subject to a very restricted time limit. They do not, in principle, sit at the same time as the plenary sitting of the National Assembly is taking place, except to complete the consideration of a bill on the agenda, in accordance with the first paragraph of article 41 of the Rules of Procedure. This principle is, however, very difficult to respect, especially since the introduction of the single session (in 1995) which has concentrated the plenary sittings on three days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). Wednesday morning is reserved for committee work. Almost all committee meetings take place on Tuesday afternoon and on Wednesday.
However the most difficult time limit is, without doubt, that imposed by the agenda. In order to alleviate this difficulty the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 introduced the requirement of a period of six weeks between the tabling of a bill and its consideration on initial reading before the first Assembly to which it is referred and then a further four-week period between the transmission of the bill and its examination on initial reading before the second House. An exception to these rules is nonetheless provided for when the accelerated procedure is implemented by the Government. The committee is thus, in principle, ensured of having the necessary time to carry out its working meetings and its hearings, with that of the minister in charge of presenting the bill being a priority.
3. – Referral to committee
a) Ad-hoc Committee or Standing Committee?
The constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 reversed the idea introduced at the beginning of the Fifth Republic which aimed at decreasing the power of the standing committees by privileging the consideration of bills by ad-hoc committees. The new wording of article 43 of the Constitution in taking note of the practice, established the rule of referral of a bill (tabled either by Government or by one or more M.P.s) to a standing committee and made referral to an ad-hoc committee, the exception.
Nonetheless the setting-up, as of right, of an ad-hoc committee remains possible if the Government requests it or if such a request is made by one or several political group chairmen, if the overall membership of the group or groups concerned, is equal to the absolute majority of members of the National Assembly. (However, this request cannot be made in the case of finance bills).
In other cases, when the request for the setting-up of a select committee comes from a standing committee, a political group or fifteen M.P.s, it is considered passed unless there is opposition from the Government, the chairman of a standing committee or the president of a political group. In the case of opposition, the decision lies with the National Assembly.
In practice, almost all bills are sent to a standing committee (since 1997 only 10 texts have been examined by an ad-hoc committee). If there is a conflict between two standing committees concerning areas of responsibility, the final decision lies with the National Assembly. This is a very rare occurrence as the last example dates back to 1979.
b) Referral to Committee for Opinion (Consultative Committees)
The almost total absence of conflict regarding areas of responsibility can be explained partly by the flexibility of the procedure of referral for opinion which allows each standing committee to express its view on all or on a part of a text which has been sent for examination to another standing committee.
Thus, every year, in the case of the finance bill which is sent to the Finance committee for examination, the five other standing committees give their opinion.
Nonetheless, outside of the finance bill, the procedure of ‘referral for opinion’ is less frequently used. This lack of use can be explained by several reasons:
- The ‘frustrating’ nature of the referral for opinion procedure. For the committee and its rapporteur it represents a relatively large amount of work for an often relatively inconsequential result.
- The possibility which is now granted to M.P.s who are not members of a committee to attend the work of another committee (in the past only the rapporteur appointed to give his opinion could attend with a consultative voice).
- It is not entirely unlikely that the new constitutional rule concerning the examination in plenary sitting of the bill emanating from the work of the lead committee, combined with the new provision of the Rules of Procedure which states that a consultative committee must meet before the lead committee, so as to present its amendments to it, may contribute in practice to the decreasing in interest for the referral for opinion procedure.
4. – Carrying out committee responsibilities in legislative matters
a) A New Place for the Committees in the Legislative Procedure
The constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 modified article 42 of the Constitution so that as of March 1, 2009, the consideration of Government and Members’ bills, in plenary sitting, would be on the text passed by the lead committee (this rule previously only applied to the examination of a Member’s bill on first reading before the first assembly to which it was referred). Thus it is now only in cases where a committee cannot produce a text, either because it has rejected it or because it has not been able to complete the examination of the text in time, that the bill discussed in plenary sitting will that initially referred to the Assembly.
This new rule has introduced a substantial change in the place and the role of the committees in the legislative procedure. From now on, the amendments adopted by the lead committee will be integrated into the bill discussed in plenary sitting and no longer have to be presented, discussed and adopted during that sitting. As a result, if M.P.s wish to attack the position adopted by the lead committee, they must table an amendment in the opposite direction during the plenary sitting. This inverted discussion procedure has consequences not only for all the parliamentarians but also for the Government which no longer controls, as before, the basis for the discussion in plenary sitting.
An exception to this new examination rule was nonetheless provided for in paragraph 2 of article 42 of the Constitution. This concerns constitutional revision bills, finance bills and social security financing bills. The discussion of such bills in plenary sitting, on first reading before the first assembly to which they have been referred, will be on the text tabled by the Government and on subsequent readings, on the bill transmitted by the other Assembly.
b) The Work of the Rapporteur
For each Government or Private Members’ bill, the relevant committee appoints a rapporteur amongst its members.
The rapporteur has no specific powers of investigation. Only special rapporteurs i.e. members of the Finance Committee in charge of examining the budgets of a specific minister, have the power to examine all documents required. This power has recently been extended to the Chairman and to the General Rapporteur of the Finance Committee. The latter is in charge of the examination of the whole finance bill.
With the help of parliamentary civil servants made available to him, the rapporteur has a double task:
- An assessment mission which leads to the filing of a report;
- A proposal mission which leads to the introduction of amendments.
- Since the revision of the Rules of Procedure, the hearings of the rapporteur are systematically open to all members of the committee. The rapporteur of the lead committee is obliged, in addition, to communicate to his fellow committee members a document which describes the state of his work during the week which precedes the consideration of the bill in committee since the time period between the tabling and the examination of the bill in plenary sitting is six weeks.
c) The Examination of Texts in Committee
The examination of the report by the committee closely resembles the procedure followed in plenary sitting.
It usually begins with a general debate, sometimes preceded by or even replaced by, the interviewing of the relevant minister. No procedural motions may be introduced at this stage. The committee then moves to the examination of the text, article by article, as well as all the amendments, including those introduced by M.P.s who are not members of the committee. The amendments adopted by a consultative committee are tabled by its rapporteur before the lead committee. The chairman of the committee ensures the conformity to article 40 of the Constitution of the amendments tabled in committee, if necessary after having consulted the Chairman of the Finance Committee, so as to avoid the committee introducing inadmissible provisions into the text to be discussed in plenary sitting.
In principle, the Government may attend this examination, but, in practice, this possibility was rarely used until the entry into force, on March 1, 2009, of the constitutional provision introducing the examination in plenary sitting of the bill emanating from the work of the committee. Since then, a member of the Government is usually present at the examination in committee of Government bills, even if the procedures for his participation in the debate are quite variable. Certain ministers do not hesitate to speak quite often whilst others limit themselves to giving their opinion only when the committee asks for it.
The committee debate finishes with a vote on the entire text. The report of the committee, which recaps all the work, concludes therefore with an overall modified text, with the original text or with a rejection of the Government or Member’s bill.
d) The Prerogatives of Committees in Plenary Sitting
In plenary sitting, the committee is represented by its chairman and by its rapporteur. In his presentation, the rapporteur is the spokesman of the committee and he must defend its opinions, even if they are the opposite of his own, which he can nonetheless express “in his personal capacity”. The rapporteur expresses the position of the committee on each of the amendments submitted to the National Assembly.
The chairman and the rapporteur of the committee responsible for the bill have one particular privilege: they may speak in plenary sitting when they wish. When a set time limit is fixed for the discussion of a bill, by virtue of article 49 of the Rules of Procedure, their speaking time is not deducted and nor is that of any consultative rapporteurs.
In addition, they may, by right, request an adjournment of the sitting, a public ballot, a deferment of the debate or a second deliberation.
II. – EXTENSION OF THE ROLE OF STANDING COMMITTEES
1. – The reinforcement of information and monitoring activities
Article 145 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly states that the standing committees must keep the National Assembly informed so as to allow it to carry out its function of monitoring Government policy.
Although the power of the standing committees concerning monitoring remained almost dormant for a long time, it has recently, and particularly over the last fifteen years, become more and more frequently used.
a) Hearings in Committee
Hearings in committee, and in particular, interviews of ministers, have become a traditional and privileged method of working for the standing committees.
Since the law of June 14, 1996, the committees have also been given the right to call for interview any person they so wish (the fact of not replying to such a summons being punishable by a €7 500 fine) whilst taking into account, on the one hand, subjects of a secret nature concerning national defence, foreign affairs and the internal or external security of the State and, on the other hand, the respect of the principle of the separation of the legal authority and the other powers.
b) Temporary Fact-finding Missions
The temporary fact-finding missions, which are set up within each committee and are sometimes shared by several committees, have become more and more numerous since 1990. Their work leads to the publication of information reports. In addition, since 1996, such missions may take on the powers of investigation enjoyed by the commissions of inquiry, in the case of a specific mission which does not exceed six months. The popularity of such missions (more than thirty are established each year) is mainly due to the lack of formality required in their setting-up. Henceforth, they must include members of the opposition (article 145 of the Rules of Procedure).
c) Assessment and Monitoring Missions
Since 1999, within the Finance Committee, there has been an Assessment and Monitoring Mission (MEC) based on the National Audit Office of the British Parliament. Every year it carries out an assessment of public policies through its work on various topics (usually four in all) predetermined by the Bureau of the Finance Committee. It is co-chaired by a member of the governing majority and a member of the opposition.
In order to better monitor the financing of the social security system, the Cultural, Family and Social Affairs Committee created an Assessment and Monitoring Mission on the laws governing the financing of social security, in 2004. This mission was based on the MEC and began its work in January 2005. It usually carries out studies on two or three themes each year.
d) Law Implementation Reports
Since 2004, the rapporteur of a law requiring the publication of regulatory texts, presents to the relevant committee, at the end of a six-month period following the coming into force of said law, an implementation report. This report describes the current situation regarding the necessary implementation regulations. 43 laws have been the subject of implementation reports since November 2004 (17 of them since 2007).
The implementation reports on laws are not always restricted to this kind of follow-up of regulatory texts but may also lead to an assessment of the legislative provisions which have been passed. At the end of his work, the rapporteur presents his conclusions to the relevant committee, in the presence of the member of the Government concerned. The latter may, if necessary, give the reasons for the delay in the publication of certain implementation regulations and point out the problems encountered in the application of the law.
So as to provide such work with greater impact in the monitoring and assessment field, the reform of the Rules of Procedure of May 27, 2009 created an obligation for the appointment of two rapporteurs for each implementation report, one of whom has to be an M.P. of the opposition.
2. – Committees and the european Normative Apparatus
Since 1992, the Government has submitted to the National Assembly and to the Senate the proposals for Community instruments with provisions of a legislative nature. This transmission has since been extended to all draft Community instruments regardless of whether they contain provisions of a legislative nature or not.
The European Affairs Committee, previously called the Delegation for the European Union, files, as it thinks fit, reports, generally accompanied by motions for resolution on certain of these instruments.
Until the reform of the Rules of Procedure on May 27, 2009, the motions for resolution on Community instruments (including those tabled individually by M.P.s) were examined by the relevant standing committee. If, within eight days of the distribution of the committee’s report, the Government, a political group chairman, a committee chairman or the chairman of the Delegation for the European Union, had not requested its inclusion on the agenda in plenary sitting, the resolution was considered adopted. This procedure thus formalised the position of the National Assembly on the resolution for a Community instrument.
Henceforth motions for resolution on Community instruments are first of all examined by the European Affairs Committee. The text which emerges from this examination is then referred to a standing committee which is considered to have passed it without modification unless it examines it within one month. If there is no request to include the motion for resolution on the agenda of the plenary sitting within fifteen days following its adoption (positive or tacit) by the lead committee, then the motion is considered carried.
3. – Modification of the rules concerning the public nature of committee proceedings
Until 1994 the public nature of committee proceedings was limited to the publication of the analytical minutes which were released as quickly as possible (usually the day after the meeting).
In 1994, the public nature of the proceedings was strengthened as the Bureau of a committee can now decide to open meetings, during which interviews are carried out, to the press. M.P.s who are not members of the committee may also, without taking part in the votes, attend meetings and take the floor during them. This is also the case for the Government.
The rules concerning the public nature of the proceedings were even further strengthened by the reform of the Rules of Procedure on May 27, 2009. This reform provided the bureau of each standing committee the task of organizing the public nature of its proceedings as it so wished. The bureau of each committee may, in particular, decide to produce an audiovisual report of its works. In addition, the minutes of the committee proceedings are now drawn up mostly by a specific department (the Committee Report Department). Thus the obligation put forward by the Constitutional Council “that a precise report of speeches made in committees, of the reasons for the modifications proposed to bills referred to committees and of the votes cast in committees, be drawn up” has indeed been met.