Summary of a meeting with Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, leader of the National Action Party (PAN) in the Mexican House of Deputies

Calderón described the rise of plurality and competition in Mexico's Congress. Only a few years ago, the Congress followed presidential dictates in making its decisions. Since 1997, however, the Congress has been divided among three major parties with several smaller parties. While many people predicted that this would lead to factionalism and inaction, instead Congress has become an effective legislative body and negotiation and consensus among the parties has been the norm. To date in this session, 67 of 71 laws have been approved with the support of all major parties.

He noted that President Fox has also sought to develop a new relationship with the Mexican Congress since assuming the presidency in December 2000. In his inauguration address, the President stated that "the President proposes and the Congress disposes." This has not been an easy transition, however. Since the President no longer dictates decisions to the Congress, it has become increasingly important for individual cabinet members to relate to the Congress on specific pieces of legislation. There have been more than 1,500 official meetings between cabinet members and the Congress. Since many cabinet secretaries are not members of Fox's party, the PAN, the relationship between the PAN members of Congress and the cabinet secretaries was at first quite complicated. Increasingly, however, the PAN is learning that the president's success is their success and is working closely with the administration to advance legislation.

One of the Congress's key institutional problems that Congress faces is a prohibition against reelection, which reduces members' professional capacities and prevents consistency and follow-up in policymaking. Many legislators believe that it is essential to change this constitutional provision, but change is not likely to come anytime soon because of the importance that "no reelection" has in Mexico's history.

There have been several additional challenges that the Congress has faced in this session, according to Calderón. These have affected the image of the President and the PAN and made it more difficult to pursue an active legislative agenda. First, the slowdown in the American economy has affected the Mexican economy dramatically, leading to negative growth in 2001. This unexpected turn of events limited options for policy. Second, the tax reform proposed by President Fox, which would have raised taxes on food, medicine, transportation, and other goods, was a highly unpopular reform, though technically sound. This affected the public's view of the PAN and of President Fox. This disapproval was reflected in local elections during 2001. Eventually, however, Congress was able to pass a slightly less controversial tax reform, which will increase government revenue by over one percent of GDP. This should help President Fox to start his most important programs.

The relationship in Congress is approaching a new crossroads, Calderón noted. Federal authorities are investigating whether Pemex, the state-owned oil company, funneled more than 100 million dollars to the presidential campaign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) through the oil workers' union. This has led the PRI to accuse the government of seeking revenge against their party and have threatened to block legislation proposed by the Fox administration. If the PRI chooses not to cooperate in legislative matters, the PAN will need to seek new alliances in the Congress in order to further legislation. This would probably mean a new coalition with the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) or with sectors of the PRD and the PRI. This would complicate the legislative process. However, Calderón noted that it is important for the investigation into campaign irregularities to proceed through legal channels regardless of whatever complications this might produce.

by Andrew Selee