DPJ rams debt relief bill through committee

by Alex Martin

A bill aimed at encouraging lenders to freeze debt repayments for small and midsize companies was set to clear the Lower House late Thursday night after the ruling bloc rammed it through a Diet committee in the first such power play since the Hatoyama administration assumed office two months ago.

The government-sponsored bill was passed by the Lower House Financial Affairs Committee despite a boycott by the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, and its former ruling coalition partner, New Komeito.

In the evening, the legislation was moved to the plenary session of the Lower House, where the DPJ, together with its two coalition partners, has an overwhelming majority. But passage was not expected to come till late into the night, after which it will be sent to the Upper House.

Deliberations on the legislation had only begun Wednesday, but committee Chairman Koichiro Genba said the decision to push the bill through was “unavoidable, considering the lack of time.”

“It was unfortunate. It was a tough choice to make,” he said.

The speedy vote reflects the government’s determination to pass the bill by the Nov. 30 end of the extraordinary Diet session, to allow the Cabinet to concentrate on drafting the budget by year’s end.

The LDP responded by submitting a censure motion against Genba, and another motion against Takeaki Matsumoto, chairman of the Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration.

Financial services minister Shizuka Kamei has been a firm advocate of the bill, which aims to support small businesses hit by the recession.

The bill calls for financial institutions to ease lending conditions for small to midsize borrowers, when asked. And although lenders aren’t required to freeze debt repayments, the bill forces them to report to the government their response to these requests.

Businesses, for their part, seem cool to the idea, with only 25.5 percent of the 10,742 companies surveyed supporting the bill, while 38.3 percent said they were opposed to it, according to a poll by Teikoku Data Bank, Ltd. in late October.