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Why Biden should invite legislators to his ‘summit for democracy’

As authoritarianism creeps up globally, the legislative branch is often the last line of defense

President Joe Biden speaks with lawmakers on April 28 at the end of his joint session address. As a former legislator himself, he is uniquely positioned to understand the critical role legislators play in safeguarding the democratic order, McMenamin writes.
President Joe Biden speaks with lawmakers on April 28 at the end of his joint session address. As a former legislator himself, he is uniquely positioned to understand the critical role legislators play in safeguarding the democratic order, McMenamin writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There is a lively debate in Washington over how the Biden administration should make good on the president’s campaign promise to hold a “summit for democracy.” Some have argued that the summit should be paired with a strategy to advance and support emerging democracy abroad. Some have noted the challenge of curating a list of attendees in a world where authoritarianism is on the march.

Effective and independent legislatures serve as the backbone of democracy by turning voters’ preferences into policy through legislation, providing oversight of the executive branch and connecting citizens with their government. Yet the conversation about safeguarding democracy and advancing democratic principles often fails to recognize the unique role that legislatures play. In particular, international convenings — being the prerogative of the executive — often overlook the legislative branch.

Any agenda for President Joe Biden’s summit should include pushing commitments to strengthen legislative institutions globally. And given the essential role that elected representatives play in democratic resilience and revival around the world, legislators should be invited to participate.

There are three essential reasons for this.

The first is strategic. Democracy watchers have been sounding the alarm for the last year about the encroaching authoritarian tendencies that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated. Globally, the legislative branch has been the last line of defense against executive overreach. Legislatures worldwide have established special committees, or given extra powers to standing committees, dedicated to COVID-19 oversight functions. These panels have been tasked with reviewing the government’s response to the pandemic and ensuring that funds are used fairly and appropriately.

New Zealand’s COVID-19 committee, for instance, is chaired by an opposition member of Parliament and has the authority to compel witnesses to provide testimony and to subpoena documents from the government. Committee business is shared online via livestream and continues Parliament’s oversight functions despite lockdown conditions.

In Israel, a temporary Finance Committee helped improve transparency in the emergency aid package provided by the government. The committee, through oversight measures, was able to require the government to provide clearer guidelines on aid package components and to make the finance minister provide monthly updates and seek legislative approval for significant programmatic changes.

In Paraguay, alongside the passage of significant emergency funding, the Congress created a bicameral committee to monitor government expenditures; committee actions have already included an investigation into the procurement process of the Ministry of Public Health.

The second reason is tactical. Opening the door to legislators would allow wider representation of nations worldwide — legislators from nations that may have spotty democracy records at the executive level could still be invited without signaling tacit approval of the heads of government.

In addition, a key measure of the summit’s success would be the adoption of commitments that would advance the Biden administration’s foreign policy objectives, including fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights. These objectives often require the passage of legislation. Involving legislators directly would improve the chances of meaningful action in individual nations and in the global community.

Lastly, there is a pragmatic argument to include legislators from less advanced democracies. The Biden administration has emphasized the value of international cooperation and partnerships to tackle global challenges. Recent statements regarding NATO and the G-7/D-10 have further signaled the president’s commitment.

These groupings however do not include key allies of the United States in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The upcoming summit would create an opportunity to integrate countries from these regions into the broader network of democracies. The House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan commission of the U.S. House of Representatives, is currently one of the only true avenues for legislative diplomacy. Its successful model of legislative peer-to-peer engagements is a critical avenue for advancing shared interests and consolidating democratic structures, and the summit could tap into this powerful paradigm by inviting legislators to attend.

A functioning legislature provides the most direct form of representation for individual citizens in a democratic system of government. By engaging legislators directly in established and emerging democracies, the United States can not only signal its commitment to representative democracy and mitigate against the risks of working exclusively with the executive, but also engage new potential democratic-minded allies. 

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as former legislators themselves, are uniquely positioned to understand and highlight the critical role individual legislators must play in safeguarding the democratic order and should extend an invitation to legislators around the world to take part in this historic event.

Erin McMenamin is a program officer at the Center for Global Impact at the International Republican Institute, a group committed to advancing democracy and freedom. She was previously a senior legislative assistant to Rep. Susan W. Brooks, R-Ind., and managed the Congressional Study Group on Germany.

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