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Colombia: The Legislature
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics > The Governmental System > The Legislature


The Constitution grants certain legislative powers to Congress in general, divides other powers between the two houses, and apportions others between Congress and the president. Legislative authority is vested in the bicameral Congress, consisting of the Senate (Senado), with 114 members, and the House of Representatives (Cámara), with 199 members. Each house has a president who is elected for sixty days. Congress convenes annually from July 20 through December 16, but the president may call it into special session at other times. The Constitution requires that Congress be called into session during a state of siege and after a state of emergency is declared.

Both houses of Congress have joint responsibility for initiating, amending, interpreting, and repealing legislation; inaugurating the president and selecting the presidential designate; selecting the membership of the Supreme Court; changing the boundaries of the territories, creating new departments, granting special powers to the departmental legislatures, and moving the location of the national capital; supervising the civil service and creating new positions in it; and setting national revenues, providing for payment of the national debt, and determining the nation's currency.

The House of Representatives chooses the attorney general from a list of nominees provided by the president, selects the comptroller general, supervises the budgetary and treasury general accounts, and initiates all legislation dealing with taxation. The Senate tries officials impeached by the House of Representatives, accepts the resignation of the president and the presidential designate, grants the president permission to leave the country temporarily, approves appointments of high-ranking military officers, and authorizes presidential declarations of war and the movement of foreign troops through the country.

Members of Congress are elected for four-year terms at the same time as the president, or within a few months of his election. They may be reelected indefinitely. House members must be at least twenty-five years old, and Senate members must be at least thirty. All members of Congress must be in full possession of their political rights. Members have parliamentary immunity and may not be arrested or prosecuted without the permission of the house in which they serve.

All the members of Congress are elected from the territorial departments and national territories on a proportional basis. Each department and national territory has two senators, plus an additional one for each 200,000 inhabitants. A minimum of two House members also are elected from each department, and national territory, plus an additional one for each 100,000 people. For every congressman elected, a congressional alternate (suplente) also is selected to serve as a department or national territory's representative in the absence of the congressman. Although geographically representative, congressmen -- as members of the upper middle class or the elite -- have been unrepresentative of Colombian society.

High rates of turnover and absenteeism and a weak committee system were among the persistent problems that hindered congressional effectiveness. Congressional turnover was always high, ranging from 60 to 80 percent; few congressmen returned for a consecutive term, and even fewer served three terms. Absenteeism also was a chronic problem. Even with the alternate system, absenteeism was quite high, with an average of less than 75 percent of congressmen or their alternates present during voting, even on the most important issues. Absenteeism prevented Congress from approving many of Barco's proposals during the 1987 legislative session. Moreover, party discipline in both houses was weak, as evidenced by the numerous dissident factions within Congress. In 1988 a majority of congressmen belonged to Barco's Liberal Party (Partido Liberal -- PL), but Barco was unable to control factional struggles in Congress. A Colombian political scientist described the situation as "parliamentary anarchy." Former President Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-74) of the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador -- PC), blamed the problem in Congress on Barco's failure to mobilize support for his program among his party's legislative majority. The committee system further weakened congressional effectiveness. The size of the eight existing committees varied, but they were usually large, met rarely, and made no use of subcommittees.

Committee chairmanships rotated, with a new chairman elected every month. The chairman's powers were limited essentially to presiding. After a congressman or government minister introduced a bill in either chamber, the congressional leadership referred it to one of the eight standing committees. If approved by the committee, it was reported back for a second reading to a plenary session of the house of origin, where a member of the committee guided it through debate. If approved by the full membership, the bill was forwarded to the other house, where it underwent the same process. Conference committees composed of members of both houses resolved legislative differences between the two houses.

Its formal powers notwithstanding, Congress lacked a dynamic legislative and policy-making role in the late 1980s. It did not initiate important legislation; rather, the executive, parties, or bureaucracy took the initiative in preparing legislation. Congress affected policy making only by delaying or modifying legislation. Nevertheless, Congress was not completely without power. Its power of interpellation allowed it to question cabinet members and public officials on the manner of implementing legislation. The congressional "watchdog" function served as a check against excesses by government agencies and the executive branch.

Furthermore, Congress exercised purview over the Public Ministry by appointing its director, the attorney general. Although lacking cabinet status, the attorney general was an important official with broad powers of intervention in the nation's political processes. The attorney general's ministry consisted of the prosecuting attorneys of the district superior, circuit, and lower courts. Public Ministry officials supervised the conduct of public employees and prosecuted those accused of crimes.

Colombia's Congress traditionally has been one of Latin America's most independent bodies vis-à-vis the executive. Beginning in the early 1980s, Congress assumed a somewhat more active role in policy making. For example, in 1984 it refused to participate in the National Dialogue that the Betancur government had pledged to hold with the country's guerrilla groups. Leaders of the Senate and House sent a message to President Betancur, stating that "Congress is the natural stage for solving the country's problems."

Occasionally, when Congress blocked proposals introduced by the executive, former presidents and other party chiefs convened a summit-style meeting among government officials and thereby resolved the policy issue. These meetings usually included the president and leaders of key political or congressional factions or interest groups opposing the legislation.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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