Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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A (Partial) Defense of the So-Called “siesta Congress” in Mexico

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 20, 2012


A recent Economist article paints Mexico’s legislature as inefficient and unproductive, calling it the “siesta Congress.” Below is an excerpt from the piece:

“Mexico’s lawmakers sit for only 195 days a year, the second-fewest among Latin America’s bigger countries. (Their $11,200-a-month pay, however, is the highest after Brazil’s.) When they do stir themselves to vote, it is more often to block rivals’ bills than to pass reforms. Gridlock in the palace of San Lázaro partly explains why Felipe Calderón’s presidency, which ends in December, now looks like a six-year damp squib.”

To a certain degree, this is true. Many issues have been stalled or stymied by Mexico’s Congress — electoral reform, police reform, and fiscal reforms to name a few. But the legislative gridlock may not be as bad as the Economist would have us believe. Since 2000 more bills have passed through the divided congress than during the years of one-party (PRI) rule. The Congress has approved the annual budget every year over the last decade (far better than the U.S. Congress’s track record), and it ratified 176 of the 195 treaties submitted for review from 2000-2005. Over the last ten years the Congress has passed a fundamental health care reform (Seguro Popular), a fundamental judicial reform (that will transform the court system and introduce oral trials), a sweeping privatization of Mexico’s public pension system, and numerous smaller changes to its energy, electoral, and tax regimes.

Slow, gradual, and often piecemeal reform — one can label this inefficient and unproductive. Or they can call it democratic.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Richard Schwartz


    This is a perceptive and excellent article. And all the great legislative work you mention happened in spite of a profound partisan divide between Los Pinos and San Lazaro!

    It always feels like such a letdown when The Economist of all publications lapses into mindless name-calling.

    PS More on the progress of the judicial reform would be welcome.

  • Posted by Shannon K. O'Neil

    Thanks Richard. I’ll take a more in-depth look soon at where Mexico is on judicial reform (though there my defense of the inefficiencies and limited productivity of Mexico’s system will be less enthusiastic, as checks and balance aren’t supposed to stop bureaucracies from implementing laws).

  • Posted by Jorge Gallardo

    Very good response to the Economist.

    I have lived in Mexico for many years and I am caught in the middle of both perceptions – being angry and content with the legislature. We would all like to see our legislative more efficient, more attentive to their constituents. However, I also understand that most all countries have a similar complaint, which is why I wonder why the publication would single out one country.

    I agree very strongly in your comment to Mr. Schwartz, one of Mexico’s huge challenge is a much needed thorough judicial reform.

    I look forward to your article.

  • Posted by Armando Talavera

    …well, it is a pretty interesting article indeed but, laziness is nothing but the smallest sin of the Mexican Political Class, they just do not care about the people, once they get a seat at any of the chambers it is use only for their own benefits and they’d do anything to remain there for a lifetime…
    I’ll give you an example…Porfirio Munoz Ledo one of the most renown mexican politicians, he is been in politics for several years(serving as minister, ambassador, lawmaker…etc.) and by these times he is now pretending to run for Mexico City’s mayor, he is presuming to be one of the most representatives left wing leaders…
    …for me as a mexican, he is doing nothing but making a good living out of the budget…at expenses of the mexican working class…a single case but very remarkable…
    By the way shannon, I enjoy lots reading your work…excellent job, congratulations!…

  • Posted by maya0

    Felipe Calderons Seguro Popular is a haphazrd, underfunded, political tool for votes. Also the media in Mexico always protrays the legislative body as a bunch of greedy do nothings. Calderon always hints that Mexico´s problems comes from those politicians that dont see eye to eye with him. What matters to Mexican´s now is the violence racking the country and are sick of Calderons war and the PRI and PAN, which are the same coin, just diffrent sides.
    Mexico necesita un Salvador, OBRADOR!
    Mexico needs a Savior, OBRADOR!

  • Posted by Tom Wainwright

    Hi Shannon, thanks for your comments on my story in The Economist.

    A quick question: can it be true that more laws have been passed in 11 years of divided government than during the previous 70 years of one party rule? I haven’t got the figures going back that far, but Lapuente and co, whom I cite, say that Fox only managed to pass 50 laws in his first three years, whereas Zedillo managed 83 in his.

    If you’ve got a link to the info, I’d be very interested to see. Thanks again for your comments and all the best.


  • Posted by Shannon K. O'Neil

    Hi Tom, thanks for your response. I miswrote slightly – the comparison isn’t between the last ten years and the whole of the PRI. It is instead between comparative periods of time. On this issue, Maria Amparo Cesar has done some interesting work, and her chapter in Andrew Selee and Jacqueline Peschard’s book “Mexico’s Democratic Challenges” has data (and an interesting chart, on page 127) showing that more bills were passed under Fox than under Presidents Zedillo and Salinas combined. So the point in terms of activity (and the actual activism of the Congress), is still the same. And, if you are interested in the information on treaties passed (something, for instance, with which the U.S. government always has difficulties), it can be found in chapter 6 of Jorge Dominguez and Rafael Fernandez de Castro’s book “Between Partnership and Conflict: The United States and Mexico.”


  • Posted by Tom Wainwright

    Hi Shannon, thanks for the references – I’ll try to hunt down a copy of those books here.

    I wonder if my source and yours are counting things differently – if it’s true that Fox passed fewer bills in his first three years than Zedillo did in his (as Lapuente and co say), then Fox’s second three years must have been amazingly productive to overtake Zedillo and Salinas combined (as María Amparo Casar says). Maybe one of them is counting only presidential initiatives, and the other one is counting all bills? Or something similar.

    Anyway thanks again for the recommendation re the sources, and all the best.


  • Posted by Shannon K. O'Neil

    I don’t know Lapuente’s work, so can’t comment on his methodology (if you would send it to me, or a link, that would be great). Maria Amparo Casar counts all the bills presented, as well as the number of bills approved. She gets the information from the Gaceta Parlamentaria, http:/ She also breaks down the number introduced by the Executive, by Senators, by Representatives, and by Committees, so you can see who are the agenda setters. As you guess, the Executive becomes much less important as the number of bills introduced escalates rapidly. She also has a table on the number of Executive led bills that pass – the approval rate falls from 84% in 1997 to 53% under Fox – a steep decline but still more likely to pass than not.

    When measuring legislative activity and productivity, there are few ways to think about it. One is the absolute number of bills passed. There, the congresses since 2000 seems to have done an adequate job – passing many more than before (though the percentage approved fell, as the numbers of bills introduced increased by some 700 percent).

    Another way is to think about “productivity” is the significance of the bills passed. Here too – though the conventional wisdom is that there has been continuous gridlock – a look at the last 10 years suggests otherwise. In a decade Mexico has passed a fundamental health care reform, social security (pension) reform, judicial reform, Freedom of Information Law (creating a whole new agency, IFAI), plus significant (if not fundamental) changes to electoral laws, the energy sector, and the fiscal regime. There are certainly many things left undone or done poorly. But, in comparative world democratic perspective, this is a pretty good track record. Add to this the challenge every bill faces – since no party has held a majority in Congress, every law requires a political coalition.

    And, finally, in measuring productivity, the fact that more initiatives come from Congress (as opposed to the Executive) suggest that they are more rather than less productive, having to shepherd a reform through the whole process – not just vote on it at the end (though of course some bills may be drafted by lobbying groups, such as the so-called 2006 Televisa Law). Mexico’s Congress and political system has its flaws, to be sure. But I just don’t see this particular one as being worse than in most any other democratic system, and in fact, on many measures they have performed admirably, given the rules and circumstances.

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