DPJ wants Cabinet to call policy shots, not juniors

by Alex Martin

It all began with a single notice handed out last month to Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers.

Addressed by Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa and dated Sept. 18, the notice stated that the ruling DPJ’s policy research council will be abolished under the new administration and lawmaker-sponsored legislation would generally be prohibited so the Cabinet would be the only place policy is initiated.

The move, intended to unify the Cabinet’s powers, reflects a clear departure from the dual policymaking process of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with the Cabinet in one corner and the ruling parties in the other — a relationship that led to cozy ties between politicians and bureaucrats.

But the DPJ notice also prompted opposition from within, as lawmakers argued the new regulation would keep party backbenchers from having a say in policymaking.

“Since each lawmaker represents a given district, our opinions need to be reflected (more strongly) in the policymaking process,” one lawmaker reportedly said after attending the land ministry’s first policy council meeting earlier this month. Such councils are now the only venues available for non-Cabinet member lawmakers to participate in policymaking.

The meeting, which lasted twice as long as initially planned, was packed and almost all of the 150 seats prepared by the ministry were filled.

Ozawa, however, was adamant about the new process.

“Policy decisions will be made by the Cabinet, with the opinion of lawmakers being heard in policy committees within each ministry,” he told a recent news conference.

In these committees — open to all ruling bloc lawmakers — policy debates are to be conducted under the guidance of vice ministers and ministerial aides. Ministers will then take the committees’ “proposals” and draw up legislation for Cabinet approval.

Ministries are already hosting policy committees ahead of the extraordinary Diet session that convenes next Monday.

Government-sponsored bills under LDP administrations needed approval from the party’s Policy Research Council and various other committees before being rubber-stamped by the Cabinet.

These committees also served to groom future policy experts. However, under the old system, “zoku-giin,” or politicians with vested interests, had a big say in making policy, at times watering down proposals. The system also caused Diet deliberations to become mere ceremony because the ruling camp had already made whatever amendments it sought in pending legislation and the opposition lacked the numbers to muster any further revisions.

Integrating policymaking within the Cabinet was a pledge the DPJ included in its campaign platform for the August Lower House election. Ozawa has also said he plans to revise the Diet law to strengthen debate among lawmakers by barring testimony by bureaucrats.

However, with less than 70 lawmakers in the administration, questions remain over how the remaining ruling-bloc politicians can take part in policymaking, and whether prohibiting lawmaker-sponsored legislation won’t rob junior politicians of the opportunity to enhance their policymaking abilities.

During a recent news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano told reporters it is unnecessary for party backbenchers to pose questions in Diet proceedings, and instead the many DPJ rookie lawmakers should focus on consolidating their support bases back home.

Hirano’s comments reflect Ozawa’s strong focus on next summer’s Upper House election, in which the DPJ aims to secure a single-party majority and not be bound by its coalition with the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

“The work of a freshman is to win the next election,” Ozawa has stressed repeatedly.

Jun Saito, a political science professor at Yale University, says this is a practical approach.

“Ozawa understands how the world of politics works. Rookies need to consolidate their electoral support base by canvassing their districts door to door. Ozawa’s view is that unless lawmakers understand local residents’ needs, they cannot formulate policies,” he said.

Saito added that the real task of lawmaking begins after politicians establish a firm electoral support base.

“I think this makes sense, given the weak survival rates of the LDP’s ‘Koizumi Children,’ ” he said, referring to the many first-term lawmakers who rode to victory in the 2005 Lower House election under then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization crusade, only to see themselves ousted from the Diet in the Aug. 30 campaign.

But Ozawa’s tactic runs counter to the recent rise in lawmaker-initiated legislation.

The 171st Diet session, the most recent, witnessed 29 new lawmaker-initiated bills in the Upper House alone — the most submitted in the past 20 Diet sessions.

SDP head Mizuho Fukushima, state minister in charge of consumer affairs and the point woman for efforts to curb the nation’s low birthrate, said at an Oct. 14 news conference that although she generally agrees with the DPJ goal of unifying policymaking within the Cabinet, she believes drafting bipartisan legislation has merit and wants a system established so the opinions of all lawmakers can be heard.

“It’s important to create policies from the bottom up,” said Fukushima.

Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University, said that although the new system is bound to invite controversy, for now it should only be observed to see how it unfolds.

“By concentrating authority with the ministers, vice ministers and ministerial aides, the new administration is making it clear who is responsible for making policies,” he said.

“But nobody can tell if the new system will actually function unless it is put in motion.

“They’ll have to learn by trial and error,” Nakano said, noting that by scrapping the DPJ policy research council, rookie lawmakers will have no choice but to sit in on the ministries’ policy committees to study how the system works and to enhance their skills.

Nakano also had this to say to the backbenchers .

“Frankly speaking, aspiring lawmakers should have a thorough understanding of various policies before being elected, not after entering the world of politics,” he said.