Poland’s parliamentary opposition, which holds a narrow majority in the second chamber, the Senate, is to attempt a change in the standing orders that will make the removal of the Speaker much harder.
The Civic Platform (PO) and its allies in the Senate from the “Left” the Polish People’s Party (PSL) want to change the standing orders of the Senate to make it more difficult to remove the Speaker and replace him with someone else. The opposition holds a precarious 51-49 majority in the Senate where it managed to elect a PO candidate, Senator Tomasz Grodzki, as Speaker of the second chamber. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) has a majority in the Lower Chamber of Parliament which elects governments and has the final say on all legislative matters.
The opposition majority in the Senate is proposing to change the way a Speaker can be recalled. According to the proposed changes, any motion for recall could only be debated a week after it was proposed and would have to be ‘constructive’, meaning that it would have to name the proposed candidate as successor. This will make it far more difficult for the Speaker to be recalled, as it will allow a week for the majority in the Senate to ensure everyone attends the vote and means that PiS would have to name the successor a week ahead of the vote.
The proposed changes also give more powers to the Speaker over determining the make-up of Senate committees. This change would ensure that each committee reflects numerically the balance of power between the parties in the Senate. The tradition up to now in the Senate has been for Senators to have more freedom in actually signing up for work in the committees.
Senate Speaker under fire
The Speaker, Tomasz Grodzki, is facing allegations that he took illicit payments for his work in the health service. He is a professor and a prominent surgeon from Szczecin. The PO and its Senate partners have so far supported him and his denial that anything inappropriate had ever taken place. The matter is being investigated by the prosecutors. Most of those who have made the allegations have not been named, though two, including a Szczecin professor, have gone public.
Tomasz Grodzki has been a high profile Senate Speaker. He has been criticized for trying to emphasize his own self-importance when he accentuates that he is the third most senior state official. In strictly constitutional terms this is correct as in the absence of the President or the Speaker of the Lower House it is the Senate Speaker who becomes head of state. But in a political sense a PM, for example, is a more significant and influential post.
He has also faced criticism from the ruling party for his forays into international affairs. His visit to Brussels to meet Commissioner Vera Jourova was criticized for undermining the government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed irritation over his meeting with the Russian Ambassador.
If the Senate is to have standing orders that are a mirror image of those in the Lower House then there will be those who will ask what it is for. It is ironic that the PO was the party that once campaigned for the abolition of the second chamber, viewing it as an unnecessary duplication of work of the Lower Chamber. Now they are proposing changes to the standing orders which will make that duplication considerably more visible than before.
The Senate is meant to be a second chamber which reflects on legislation proposed by the Lower house and proposes amendments to such legislation. It can initiate legislation, but the final say on all legislative matters lies with the Lower House which is also responsible for electing governments and holding them to account.
The problem is that since the Senate is elected at the same time as the Lower House, elections to it rarely get noticed. The race for the Lower House is more important. The 2019 election was the first time that the party majorities in the Senate and the Lower House came from different sides of the political divide. In all previous elections whichever party won in the Lower House had managed to win in the Senate too.
This divergence between the Senate and the Lower House has meant that there is now much more interest in the work of the Senate. The opposition wants to use it to delay government legislation and embarrass the government whenever possible. So a chamber of reflection it will never be.