Baixo Clero literally means “lower clergy.” However, the expression is used to describe a group of little-known congressmen, more focused on increasing their own privileges than on approving agendas of consequence.
The term baixo clero (lower clergy) comes, naturally, from the Catholic Church. During Medieval times, the Church was divided into two categories: the upper and the lower clergy. It was essentially a class system that separated cardinals and bishops from priests with little political power.
Brazilian political science has borrowed the term to separate political leaders with decision-making powers from anonymous congressmen that only follow partisan orientation.
The term, however, is a derogatory way to refer to a politician. Calling a congressman a member of the baixo clero not only speaks to his prominence within his own party. Over time the term began to acquire another meaning, describing a class of politicians with little regard to any agenda but their own.
Instead of fighting for projects, these men and women fight to keep their privileges and work on what more or less amounts to a quid pro quo basis. Their congressional votes are always for sale.
From time to time, this lower class of politicians rebel against party leaders. That happened in 2005, when the House elected Congressman Severino Cavalcanti, a man with no relevant political history, as Speaker. He received votes after promising to push for salary raises for politicians and increasing their cabinets’ budget.
At the time, the sitting government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tried to gather his support. In exchange for his help, Cavalcanti wanted to name a Petrobras director. Which one? The one that controls “finding and drilling oil,” he said at the time.
Severino Cavalcanti’s reign, however, didn’t last long. He had to resign after a corruption scandal damaged his credibility. Cavalcanti used to collect bribes from the House’s suppliers.