Citing the necessity to fight the crisis, the Cabinet tried to usurp prerogatives of the parliament.

The Duma discussed amendments to the 2008 budget, yesterday, and tried to digest the Cabinet’s bold suggestions. Citing the necessity to fight the crisis, the Cabinet undertook to usurp a major function of the lower house of the parliament – the right to endorse budget expenditures and their distribution among ministries and departments. The parliament hit the roof upon hearing it and the process was put on hold for the time being. The government chaired by United Russia leader Vladimir Putin wouldn’t abandon the plans to take over some of the functions performed by the legislature.

Budget Committee of the Duma considered amendments to the Budget Code suggested by the Finance Ministry and advised the lower house of the parliament against their adoption. One of the amendments stipulated freedom of the Cabinet in rearrangement of sums between articles of the federal budget, a prerogative of the lower house of the parliament itself. In other words, the government asked the Duma to invest in it the power to revise the budget whenever it felt like it. Moreover, the initiative was presented as one of the urgent anti-crisis measures.

The Budget Committee immediately saw through the disguise and understood exactly what the Cabinet was angling at. The parliament was asked to step away and leave budget distribution to the government. The Cabinet was reminded that in what foreign countries the governments distributed budgets on their own had the tradition of resignation of the government whenever the parliament deemed its decision wrong. Some lawmakers suggested investing in the Finance Ministry this power for a year only as an experiment but they were overruled.

Everybody expected the government to make another try at the plenary meeting of the Duma yesterday. It certainly appeared so at first. The Cabinet’s official representative Andrei Loginov asked the parliament to leave amendments to the Budget Code for the end of the meeting. The Duma complied with the request but killed the amendment all the same.

Valery Ryazansky, senior deputy leader of United Russia faction, said the Finance Ministry was going too far. “United Russia supports the government and its chairman. It is therefore always ready to satisfy all their requests,” Ryazansky said. Deputy Finance Minister Tatiana Nesterenko was heard as saying afterwards that the Finance Ministry would insist and suggest some sort of compromise. She never said, however, what sort of compromise it might be.

Sources in the Presidential Administration explained that some restrictions might be imposed on the Finance Ministry aspiring to additional powers (these powers might be invested in for a definite period only, or the Finance Ministry might be ordered to make reports).

What experts Nezavisimaya Gazeta approached for comments were unanimous in the opinion that what the Cabinet was presenting as anti-crisis measures could disrupt parity between the executive and legislative branches of the government. “It comes down to abolition of the budget,” Mikhail Delyagin of the Center for Problems of Globalization said. “The government wields the power to correct expenditures of the budget within 10% without asking for the Duma’s permit. Using the crisis as a cover, the Cabinet is forcing the following arrangement on the parliament: the latter endorses sum total of the budget and leaves all the rest to the former.”

“Enhancement of powers of the government is dangerous. It will render work on the budget obsolete,” Delyagin warned.

“This legislative initiative may be adopted for a limited period, say, for a year, to untie the government’s hands in dealing with the crisis. The parliament will merely delegate some of its powers to the government – and not for long,” Dmitry Badovsky of the Institute of Social Systems said. “And yet, it is not what the government is after – or so it seems. The government wants this freedom permanently, and that’s a different matter altogether.”

Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Social Policy Center assumed that adoption of what the government was suggesting would indicate an impending crisis. “Amendment of the budget is a time-consuming procedure. The government displays an absolutely logical desire to be given freedom to act. On the other hand, the legislative branch of the government should give a thought to some restrictions and limitations or the parity will be disrupted.”