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The Examination of Bills in Committee
I. – DECIDING UPON THE COMPETENT COMMITTEE
Government bills and Members’ bills, once the latter have been declared financially admissible, which are tabled before the National Assembly, are sent for examination to the relevant lead standing committee. Where necessary, standing committees other than that deemed relevant, are permitted to give an opinion on the bill in question. In addition, since the reform of the Rules of Procedure of May 27, 2009, the European Affairs Committee (which is not a standing committee in the sense of article 43 of the Constitution) may also provide its observations on any bill dealing with an area covered by the activities of the European Union.
1. – The lead committee
This committee may be either a committee especially set up in order to examine a given bill or one of the eight standing committees of the National Assembly.
a) Referral to a Standing Committee
Article 43 of the Constitution initially provided that the setting-up of an ad-hoc committee would be the rule and referral to a standing committee the exception. However in practice, in the vast majority of cases, standing committees retained the referral remit and the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 drew a lesson from this reality by making referral of a bill to a standing committee the rule and the setting-up of an ad-hoc committee the exception.
The President of the Assembly decides upon the referral of a bill to a committee upon the tabling of the bill before the Assembly. This decision is taken according to the various remits laid down by article 36 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly.
It is rare for a committee to contest such a decision. If there is a disagreement over areas of competence, or if the committee appointed as the relevant committee were to declare the bill beyond its remit, article 85, paragraph 2 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly provides that the President, after a debate during which only the Government or the proposer of a bill and the chairmen of the committees concerned, may speak and may propose to the National Assembly, the setting-up of an ad-hoc committee. If this motion is rejected then the President may submit the question of the choice of the relevant standing committee to the National Assembly.
b) Setting-up of an Ad-Hoc Committee
An ad-hoc committee may be set up, as of right, when the Government so requests (article 30 of the Rules of Procedure) or when one or several chairmen of political groups representing an absolute majority of M.P.s, ask for it (article 32 of the Rules of Procedure). In addition, it may be requested by the chairman of a standing committee, the chairman of a political group or by at least fifteen M.P.s (article 31 of the Rules of Procedure). Such a request is deemed to be adopted if no objection has been submitted by the Government, by the chairman of a standing committee or by the chairman of a political group. When such an objection is submitted, the National Assembly is required to vote on it after a limited debate.
The membership of an ad-hoc committee is restricted to 70 M.P.s (the committee may add at the most two non-aligned M.P.s to this number) and the number of its members belonging to the same standing committee may not be more than 34 (article 33 of the Rules of Procedure). A chairman of a standing committee may now also chair an ad-hoc committee. This was not the case before the reform of the Rules of Procedure dating from May 27, 2009.
2. – The possibility of referral for opinion
Article 87 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly enables standing committees to present an opinion on all or part of a Government bill, a Members’ bill or on all or part of the credits for budget appropriation. In the case of the initial finance bill, it is customary that the seven standing committees, other than the Finance Committee, which is the lead committee in accordance with article 39 of the Institutional Act of August 1, 2001 (LOLF), present an opinion on the budget of the missions which fall within their remit. Thus logically, there is no referral for opinion in the case of the setting-up of an ad-hoc committee.
Since the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008 led to the debate in plenary sitting being based on the bill passed by the lead committee, the Rules of Procedure were changed so as to oblige the consultative committees to meet before the lead committee (article 87, paragraph 3 of the Rules of Procedure) so that their amendments could be considered and, where necessary, included in the bill discussed in plenary.
II. – EXAMINATION PROCEDURE
1. – The drawing-up of a report
Every committee which has a bill referred to it, whether it be a standing committee or an ad-hoc committee, a lead committee or a consultative committee, first of all appoints a rapporteur from amongst its members. The rapporteur’s role is to throw light upon the work of a committee by presenting to it a report in which he lays down his views on the bill and, where necessary, proposes amendments.
So as to provide the committees with enough time to consider bills, the constitutional revision of July 23, 2008, set a minimum time limit of six weeks between the tabling of a bill and its examination in plenary sitting on first reading before the assembly to which it was first referred. The revision also set a minimum limit of four weeks between the tabling of a bill and its consideration in plenary sitting on first reading before the second assembly to which it was referred. These limits are no longer obligatory if the bill is examined in accordance with the accelerated procedure. Nonetheless the Constitution does impose a 15-day minimum limit before the first assembly referred to, in the case of an institutional bill.
With the assistance of one or more civil servants belonging to the secretariat of the relevant committee, the rapporteur begins his work by compiling information on the bill in question. This means that:
- He organizes meetings with the representatives of the relevant ministry or ministries (ministerial staff, central administrative departments etc.);
- He holds meetings, if he feels it necessary, with representatives of the various associations and socio-professional groups involved;
- He gathers a broad range of documents on the subjects dealt with by the bill;
- The special rapporteurs of the Finance Committee are the only rapporteurs provided with legal powers of investigation concerning the Executive. In practice, the other rapporteurs have no great difficulty in obtaining the information they require.
- When the rapporteur deems it desirable that the committee hears other opinions than his own on a particular bill, he may suggest the organization of hearings with experts in the field. It is also quite usual for the minister(s) concerned to appear before the committee.
- The committee’s Bureau may then publicize its work as it so wishes, in particular by allowing the press or the general public to attend them or by deciding upon a production or a televisual broadcast of its proceedings (article 46, of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly). The rapporteur’s hearings are systematically open to all the members of the committee (article 46, paragraph 1 of the Rules of Procedure). The rapporteur of the lead committee is, in addition, required, when the time limit between the tabling and examination of the bill in plenary sitting is six weeks, to communicate to all the members of the committee a document setting down the state of his work during the week preceding the consideration of the bill in committee (article 86, paragraph 2 of the Rules of Procedure).
2. – Examination of the report
Once the preparatory work has been completed, the examination of the report is included on the agenda of a meeting of the relevant committee. This examination in committee should usually take place on first reading in such a time period that the committee may conclude its work and that the bill passed by the committee may be made available to M.P.s at least seven days before its consideration in plenary sitting (article 86, paragraph 4 of the Rules of Procedure).
a) Attendance at Meetings
In addition to the members of the committee, the meetings concerning the examination of the report by the lead committee may be attended by interested members of the Government, as well as by members of other committees and therefore the initiator(s) of the Members’ bill or of amendments (article 86, paragraph 6 of the Rules of Procedure) and the rapporteurs of the consultative committees (article 87, paragraph 2 of the Rules of Procedure).
Amendments may be tabled on the bill considered in committee by any M.P. up until 5pm of the third working day preceding the examination in committee, unless the chairman of the committee has decided otherwise (article 86, paragraph 5 of the Rules of Procedure). The Constitutional Council considers that this possibility granted to the chairman of the committee “should allow the guaranteeing of the effective nature of the carrying-out of the right to amendment provided to parliamentarians by article 44 of the Constitution”.
The rapporteur, the consultative rapporteurs, if there are any and the Government, are not bound by this time limit concerning the tabling of amendments in committee.
b) Procedure of the Meeting
The examination phase begins with a general discussion which is opened by the rapporteur’s presentation. However when the examination of the report has been directly preceeded by the hearing of a minister, the committee may decide that such a hearing and the ensuing debates may be considered as replacing the general discussion.
In all other cases, the committee examines the articles of the bill along with the amendments put forward by the rapporteur and the other members of the committee as well as those of M.P.s from outside the committee and of the Government.
Each committee chairman must ensure the conformity of the amendments tabled in committee to article 40 of the Constitution. He may, in so doing, consult the Chairman of the Finance Committee so as to prevent the committee from including in the bill to be discussed in plenary sitting, any inadmissible provisions (article 89, paragraph 2 of the Rules of Procedure).
In addition, the consultative committees are bound to meet before the lead committee so that their proposals may be taken into account during the drawing-up of the bill to be discussed in plenary sitting (article 87, paragraph 3 of the Rules of Procedure).
Furthermore, the Government (whose presence during the consideration of bills in committee was a right provided for by paragraph one of article 45 of the Rules of Procedure but which remained largely unused until the coming into force of the new provisions on the legislative procedure) is now frequently present during the examination of Government bills. The Rules of Procedure nonetheless excludes the Government from attending during votes concerning finance bills, social security financing bills and constitutional revision bills (article 117-1, paragraph 4 of the Rules of Procedure), which are not discussed in plenary sitting on the basis of the committee text.
The committee votes on each of the amendments defended and on each of the articles and then it concludes its work with a vote on the whole bill.
c) The Effect of Committee Decisions
The effect of committee decisions depends upon the nature of the bills submitted to it for examination.
Since March 1, 2009, amendments adopted by the lead committee for a Government or Member’s bill have been immediately included in the bill which will then be examined in plenary sitting in this modified form (whilst this rule only applied before to the consideration on first reading of Members’ bills before the first assembly to which they had been referred). Now the only time that a bill discussed in plenary sitting is the one originally referred to the assembly, is when a bill cannot be drawn up by the committee, i.e. either when the committee votes to reject the bill or when it has not managed to complete its examination of the bill in time.
However, as regards constitutional revision bills, finance bills and social security financing bills, the discussion in plenary sitting is on the basis of the bill proposed by the Government or transmitted by the Senate. In these cases, the proposals made by the committees thus take the form of amendments which are subject to the same rules of financial admissibility and to the same conditions of examination as those of political groups or individual M.P.s.
d) Rules of Procedure
In principle, the Rules of Procedure applied in committee are those, mutatis mutandis, followed in the Chamber, with the exception of procedural motions which are no longer raised except during the general discussion of bills in plenary sitting.
In practice however these rules are applied in a more flexible manner. Discussions generally take place in a relaxed atmosphere and decisions are taken with a minimum of formality: a vote by public ballot, which, because of the absence of electronic voting machines, could not take place in the same conditions as in the plenary sitting, is almost never requested. In addition, the “quorum” (i.e. the presence of a majority of members of the committee) whose checking can be requested by one third of the members present, is very rarely called for and has, in fact, lost much of its interest as a means of obstruction. If it is not reached, the vote may only be held at the following sitting which may now be held fifteen minutes afterwards as opposed to three hours in the previous wording of the Rules of Procedure.
e) The Drawing-up of the Report
The deliberations of the committee are brought together in a report which is distributed before the plenary debate. This document, which is often very long, includes:
- A general analysis of the bill, its context concerning the law which it modifies along with international comparisons, as well as an overall political judgement;
- n analysis of the content of each article as well the minutes of the ensuing debates;
- A comparative table showing, in separate columns, the legislation in force prior to the bill (or to the reference texts), the provisions of the original bill (or of that transmitted by the Senate) and the amendments adopted by the committee;
- The “sommier” or collection of the amendments not adopted by the committee;
- Where necessary several information annexes: one on the European law applicable or being drawn up which recalls the positions taken by the Assembly through motions, another establishing the list of bills liable to be repealed or modified upon the examination of the new legislation and a third presenting the observations which have been collected on the impact studies accompanying the bill;
- The bill which emerges from the committee’s work will be printed and transmitted and will be the reference basis for the tabling of amendments in preparation of the examination in plenary sitting.
3. – The examination of amendments after the adoption of the report
Amendments which could not be tabled in time to be examined at the same time as the report, must be examined by the lead committee, the day before or the day itself of the plenary sitting, during one or several meetings held in accordance with article 88 of the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly.
During such meetings the rapporteur may table amendments. If such amendments are adopted they will however be considered as amendments tabled by an individual M.P. and not as committee amendments.
If necessary, a final amendment examination meeting may take place before the opening of the discussion of the articles in plenary sitting (article 91, paragraph 11 of the Rules of Procedure).
4. – Other meetings after the adoption of a report
There are two other cases in which the committee may be reconvened when dealing with a bill under discussion:
- The adoption of a motion of referral back to the committee. In this case the committee must produce a new report within a time limit set down by the Government if the text is included on the priority agenda, or by the National Assembly in the opposite case (article 91, paragraph 6 of the Rules of Procedure);
- Before the ‘explanations of voting’, the National Assembly may demand a second deliberation on all or part of the bill if the Government or the committee request such a procedure or if the committee accepts such a request from an individual M.P. The committee must then produce a new report, usually verbal and immediate, on the provisions which have been returned (article 101 of the Rules of Procedure).
5. – The public nature of committee work
Detailed minutes of a committee’s debates and votes are written for each committee meeting. These minutes are available on the internet site of the National Assembly in the ‘Work in Committee’ section. In addition, the report of the work of each committee is now drawn up mainly by a specific department (the Committee Report Department). Thus the requirement stipulated by the Constitutional Council has been fulfilled: “that there should be a precise report of speeches made before committees, of the reasons given for the proposed modifications to the bills which have been referred to the committees and of the votes held within committees”.
These rules concerning the public nature have been strengthened by the reform of the Rules of Procedure of May 27, 2009 which provided the bureau of each committee with the task of organizing the public nature of the committee work through the means of its choice. The committees have now mostly opened up their hearings to the media and to the general public. The bureau of each committee may also decide to produce a televisual report of its works.
III. – THE ROLE OF COMMITTEES IN THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE LAWS
M.P.s who had been rapporteurs to their committee on a legislative bill were naturally inclined to follow the implementation of such a bill personally and it happened quite frequently that information reports on the application of the bill were published several months after the law was passed.
A provision which was introduced to the Rules of Procedure in 2004, provided such assessment with a statutory framework. Six months after the coming into force of a law requiring the publication of regulatory texts, the rapporteur, or failing this, another member of the committee, must produce a report detailing the necessary implementation decrees, circulars and instructions which have been introduced.
The implementation reports are not always limited to this aspect of the follow-up of regulatory texts and may enable the assessment of the legislative provisions which have been passed. At the end of his work, the rapporteur presents his conclusions before the relevant committee, in the presence of the member of the Government concerned who can, if necessary, explain the delay in the publication of certain regulatory texts or the problems met in the implementation of the legislation.
If implementation instruments have not yet been applied, the rapporteur must reappear before the committee before the end of a second period of six months.
In order to provide this work with a greater monitoring and assessment impact, the reform of the Rules of Procedure introduced the obligation of the appointment of two rapporteurs on each implementation report, one of whom has to belong to an opposition group (article 145-7, paragraph 1 of the Rules of Procedure).