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Thursday, October 26, 2023

On the usefulness of Parliamentary law in achieving fiscal responsibility

by Pratik Datta, Radhika Pandey, Ila Patnaik and Ajay Shah.

Economists in India have long pondered the design of a fiscal rule. It is felt that once that ideal rule is embedded into the FRBM Act, we would solve the long-standing excesses of Indian public finance.

Pratik Datta, Radhika Pandey, Ila Patnaik and I looked under the hood, at the legal mechanisms through which such a Parliamentary law works. In a recent paper, Understanding deviations from the fiscal responsibility law in India, we argue that the difficulty lies not in economics but in the Indian constitutional arrangement. Because the budget is enacted through a `money bill', it can readily contain clauses that amend the FRBM Act. We argue that the problem with the FRBM Act lies not in the economic thinking but in the notion that Parliamentary law can constraint leviathan.

On the subject of public finance, the following design elements are embedded in the Constitution:

  1. The executive cannot raise money (tax or borrow) or spend money without the authority of the Parliament.
  2. The power to raise money (tax or borrow) or spend money belongs exclusively to the Lok Sabha. The philosophy of checks and balances associated with the presence of the Rajya Sabha, so eloquently described by Suyash Rai in 2016, is absent when it comes to money bills.
  3. The Parliament cannot authorize expenditure except on demand by the Executive.
  4. The Parliament cannot authorize taxation except on recommendation by the Executive.
  5. The Lok Sabha has the power to assent to, reject or reduce but not to increase the amount of any demand made by the Executive under Article 113(2). The Parliament can neither suggest any new expenditure nor propose an increase in demand over and above what the government suggests in the Demand for Grants.

Normative public finance in India needs to grapple with this design of the Constitution. The power of the executive, embedded in this design, should be seen as part of the larger problem of the Indian administrative state. A generation of public finance economists in India have tried to solve the chronic deficits of the union government through Parliamentary law. We suggest that this is not a fruitful line of inquiry.

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