Coalition rams pension bills through welfare committee

Chaos in House of Councilors as opposition protests

by

The ruling coalition rammed the government’s controversial pension reform bills through a House of Councilors committee amid chaotic scenes at the Diet on Thursday.

The Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition hopes to have the package of pension bills — designed to increase premiums while cutting benefits to save the ailing system from collapse — enacted by a Upper House plenary session on Friday.

But the opposition camp plans to put up resistance, possibly by submitting censure motions against members of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to delay a vote on the bills.

Ruling coalition lawmakers insist that the bills must be enacted to prevent the health of the nation’s troubled pension system from deteriorating further in light of the rapidly aging population.

The opposition has pledged to try every possible measure to have the bills scrapped, criticizing the government for failing to have a full debate on the issue while seeking only to increase premiums and reduce benefits without overhauling the system itself.

On Thursday afternoon, ruling coalition lawmakers submitted a motion to terminate debate at the Upper House health and labor committee while there was still time left for opposition lawmakers to submit questions.

The committee floor was thrown into turmoil as opposition lawmakers rushed to the seat of the panel’s chairman to prevent him from taking a vote on the motion and then on the bills. The chairman declared that the bills had been approved with majority support.

“I’ve never heard of such” a way of taking a vote, said Katsuya Okada, president of the Democratic Party of Japan. The move “represents the coalition’s intention to hush up what they don’t want to be discussed in public.”

Okada went on to criticize Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for effectively refusing to answer questions from the opposition camp at the committee.

Under the government’s proposed legislation, premiums for the corporate employee pension program would be raised to 18.3 percent by fiscal 2017 from the current 13.58 percent, while those for the basic National Pension Program would be raised to a maximum 16,900 yen a month from the current 13,300 yen.

The government had promised that, although pension benefits would be reduced over the next 19 years, they would not fall below 50 percent of the average annual income for a model case of a 40-year-old salaried worker who has a spouse of the same age without a full-time job and pays premiums for 40 years before retirement.

Later Thursday, the opposition camp rejected a ruling coalition proposal to hold an Upper House plenary session on Friday to vote on the pension bills.

Earlier in the day, Jiro Kawasaki, the LDP’s vice Diet affairs chief, told a news conference that the pension bills must be enacted Friday because a dozen other bills are still waiting for deliberation in the House of Representatives alone before the Diet adjourns on June 16.

Deliberations on the pension bills have been clouded by revelations that seven Cabinet ministers and a number of Diet members, including those in the opposition camp, had failed to either pay their mandatory pension premiums or join the national pension program in the past.

To make matters worse, Koizumi himself has admitted that he failed to join the mandatory national pension program after he returned from studying abroad in London.

The DPJ had put forward a counterproposal to the government-sponsored bills, calling for the existing pension programs to be integrated in fiscal 2009 to establish income-linked pensions, with the introduction of an additional 3 percent consumption tax whose revenue would be exclusively used to fund basic pension payouts.