Does The Liberia Legislature Have A Head?

By Mohamedu F. Jones


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 10, 2006


Who is the “head” of the Liberian Legislature? This is the sort of question a lawyer would object to in a trial as one that “assumes a fact not in evidence.” The presumptuous “fact not in evidence” is that the Liberian Legislature has a “head” and the questioner is merely seeking to identify who that person is. The short answer is that there is no such thing as the “head” of the Legislature. The Constitution does not provide for a Legislative “head.” As our analysis will show, the notion that the late Richard A. Henries, the last Speaker of the House of Representatives under the 1847 constitution was the “head” of the National Legislature is not supported under that Constitution. Similarly, the 1986 Constitution, our present Constitution also does not support a construction that there is a constitutional “head” of the Legislature of Liberia.

Constitutionally and functionally, Liberia has a bi-cameral Legislature comprised of a House of Representatives and a House of Senate. Each Legislative chamber is constitutionally and functionally independent of each other, and yet constitutionally and functionally interdependent with each other. What this means is that each house operates separately (independently), but to enact laws, they must act together (interdependently). “Acting together” here does not mean “jointly.”

The 1847 Constitution (as amended through 1955) laid the constitutional foundation for the nation’s legislative process in providing, that “Legislative power shall be vested in a Legislature of Liberia, and shall consist of two separate branches.” The use of the word “branches” indicates that the original Liberian constitution placed the separate legislative houses in fundamentally the same juxtaposition as the three branches of the national government, i.e. legislative, executive and judicial. The framers’ addition of the phrase, “each of which shall have a negative on the other,” underscores and emphasizes the independent interdependency that they sought to create in respect to the two distinct houses of the legislature.

The 1847 Constitution provided further that the “House of Representatives shall elect their own Speaker and other officers”; there was no concomitant provision for a specific House of Senate office. Moreover, the 1847 Constitution granted both houses certain powers that each held: judging the qualifications of its own members; adopting its own rules; and enforce its own order. It also granted certain powers exclusive to a particular house: impeachment resided with the representatives and trials with the senators. Both houses were required to meet in the same location, and could not adjourn for more than two days without the consent of the other. Most importantly, the mirror image of a bill had to pass each house separately before submission to the executive.

The current Constitution maintained the same fundamental relationship between the two legislative chambers in Liberia. It also provides for “two houses,” which could be seen as “softer” than the previous constitution’s “two branches.” Significantly, it states precisely that both the Senate and the House of Representatives “must pass on all legislation” underscoring the interdependence of the two chambers of the Legislature.

The Constitution, like its 1847 counterpart, grants powers to each house to make its own rules, enforce those rules, and create its own committees and sub-committees. Adjournment of one house for more than five days without the consent of the other is prohibited and the two houses must sit in the same city. The power to impeach and try such impeachments are vested separately also as it had been in the 1847 Constitution. The Constitution specifically provides for the offices of a President Pro Tempore (unlike the 1847 version) and of Speaker (as did the 1847 version).

Article 33 provides that “Whenever the House of Representatives and the Senate shall meet in joint session, the presiding officer of the House of Representatives shall preside.” This explicitly requires that in legislative joint session, the Speaker of the House is to serve as the presiding officer of such a session. In addition, Article 64 places the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, as well as Cabinet officers in the line of succession to the presidency. There are no like constitutional provisions in respect to senate leadership.

Any suggestion that because the Speaker is designated to preside over legislative joint sessions and is also in the line of presidential succession is indicative of a form of primacy or placement as “head” of the Liberian legislature does not withstand scrutiny. Liberian legislative joint sessions have no authority whatsoever under the constitution. No laws can be made in joint session; no act of the legislature can be done in joint convention. Under Article 35, a “bill or resolution which shall have passed both Houses of the Legislature shall, before it becomes law, be laid before the President for his approval.” The clear requirement is that bills must pass each House under its rules and not a joint session of the Legislature.

Constitutionally, legislative joint sessions are for the purpose of the administration of the oath of office to the President of the Republic (Article 53) and to hear the President’s annual report (Article 58). The inclusion of the Speaker, but with the Deputy Speaker, and particularly with un-elected cabinet members, in the line of presidential succession undercuts any argument that the Speaker’s placement in the line grants him some additional constitutional title or authority in the Legislature.

There is no titular leader or “head” of the Liberian Legislature provided for under the Constitution. It is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution to suggest that any officer of either house is the “head” of the Legislature. It is constitutional nonsense to even argue that there is a “head’ of the Liberian legislature, even if present-day legislative leaders don top hats and “tail coats” like Speaker Henries used to wear back on certain ceremonial occasions.