Ozawa girds for major Diet reform

Poll ploy? DPJ kingpin vows to ram bill to neuter bureaucracy through this session

by Alex Martin

Is Ichiro Ozawa hungry for dictatorial power, or is he a political hero seeking to strengthen the Diet by cutting the bureaucracy down to size?

Throughout his long political career, Ozawa, now secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, has spoken of the need for politicians and not bureaucrats to set policy both in the Diet and in the government.

His efforts have yet to amount to much. But now Ozawa, regarded by some as the most powerful man in the ruling bloc, appears bent on pushing through a key Diet reform bill.

“If an agreement cannot be reached, we will have to settle for a majority vote,” Ozawa said at a Dec. 7 news conference, implying that if the opposition camp tries to block the bill, he will use the DPJ’s majority in the Lower House to ram it through the Diet during the session that starts this month.

That was standard practice during the Liberal Democratic Party’s five decades of nearly unbroken rule. As a former key LDP member, Ozawa well understands this.

The bill would prohibit the chief of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau from speaking in the Diet, effectively relinquishing the bureau’s role in determining the government’s official interpretations of the Constitution, especially the war-renouncing Article 9, and turning that responsibility over to the Cabinet.

The bill also calls for increasing the number of senior vice ministers and ministerial aides — who are responsible for communicating policy decisions directly to the heads of the bureaus within the ministries — and abolishing the practice of summoning government officials to give testimony in the Diet.

The proposed legislation has been hit for giving the Cabinet too much discretion in interpreting the Constitution, potentially leaving Article 9 vulnerable to differing readings depending on who is in power.

The LDP has slammed what it calls Ozawa’s plan to bulldoze the bill through the Diet, arguing there are more important matters to take up in the coming session.

“It’s simply wrong” to rely on a majority, LDP Secretary General Tadamori Oshima said.

The DPJ-led ruling bloc should strive to win over the opposition camp instead of using its majority to force the bill through, Oshima said.

Ozawa has been pushing to amend the Diet law since 1993, when his book “Nihon Kaizo Keikaku” (“Blueprint for a new Japan”) was released. He proposed that bureaucrats be banned from answering questions from Diet members.

His call for reform reportedly stems from his experience with the Cabinet Legislation Bureau in 1991. This was during the Gulf War when he was still in the LDP.

The party’s secretary general at the time, he was frustrated by the bureau’s refusal to allow Japan to provide support on the ground for U.S.-led coalition forces despite repeated requests from Washington and the LDP.

Nihon University political science professor Tomoaki Iwai said Ozawa has been bitter about the bureau ever since, and the Diet reform bill is, in a sense, his revenge.

“I believe that’s where it all began for Ozawa,” Iwai said.

Iwai supports the reform bill nonetheless, saying the Cabinet Legislation Bureau has only served to weaken the functions of the Diet.

“The bureau’s interpretation of the law is too strict,” he said. “Yes it’s true that they do a good job in keeping it in check, but this can be suffocating — it leaves no space for political compromises and makes it difficult to add amendments.”

Apart from constitutional issues, lawmakers have long been known for their inability to formulate policy, relying heavily on bureaucrats to do it for them.

In fact, most of the bills submitted to the Diet have been drafted by ministry officials and senior bureaucrats often handled questions from the opposition parties during deliberations over those bills. Lawmakers focus instead on negotiations over deliberation procedures and schedules, which can determine the fate of a bill.

Under the current system, which limits regular Diet sessions to 150 days, bills that are not passed cannot, in principle, be carried over to the next session.

For this reason, the ruling camp hastens deliberations to pass legislation before sessions end, while the opposition seeks to drag out deliberations on legislation they oppose until time runs out and pending bills are scrapped.

In his book, Ozawa also called for the Diet to meet year-round to revitalize proceedings. A similar proposal was presented in November by the private-sector group Niju-isseiki Rincho (21st Century Ad-Hoc Study Group).

The group handed Ozawa a set of proposals aimed at improving the Diet’s performance, including the need to meet all year long, like the British Parliament.

That proposal was left out of the new bill, with Ozawa explaining that for the time being he intends to concentrate on revising the bill so it will encourage politicians, not bureaucrats, to participate in Diet deliberations.

Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano said that while that change is not likely to be included in the new reform bill, he believes that as long as Ozawa is involved, a year-round Diet system is inevitable.

“Without a year-round Diet, the reform is not complete,” Nakano said. “Besides, I believe voters are getting sick of the current system where the only means for the opposition to resist the passage of bills is to boycott deliberations and hope that time runs out.”

Ozawa’s model is based roughly on Britain’s Westminster system of centralizing policymaking in the Cabinet, which in turn treats the bureaucracy as a body of obedient servants. He has called for an end to such Diet traditions as getting bureaucrats to answer questions and wasting time on partisan negotiations.

But Nakano said basing politics here on the Westminster system is both unrealistic and impractical. Although Japan operates under a bicameral system, British politics is basically unicameral, giving the ruling party almost unrestricted legislative authority — an “elective dictatorship” — where state-sponsored bills are nearly always passed, he said.

“If Japan adopts a similar system, new means will have to be found to keep the ruling party in check” so it won’t abuse its power, he explained.

Former Lower House Secretary General Fukumaru Tani, who has worked in the Japanese Embassy in London, said during a recent lecture that while some portions of the current Diet law should be amended, the Japanese system also has merit.

“True, bureaucrats should be banned from answering questions in the Diet,” he said. “But it’s also a fact that the Japanese system allows back-benchers a chance to actively participate in various committees. The system itself is well-structured. I don’t see much need for a major amendment.”

But some experts say that while passing the Diet reform bill might be one of Ozawa’s primary goals in the upcoming session, he has plenty of other items on his plate.

Hidekazu Kawai, an honorary professor at Gakushuin University, said Ozawa was supplying enough ammunition so the DPJ won’t lose its momentum before the July Upper House election.

“To be frank, there’s no need to amend the current Diet law to achieve the changes mentioned in the reform bill,” he said.

“If the Cabinet didn’t want bureaucrats to answer questions in the Diet, it could simply appoint someone from the ruling coalition or government to stand instead,” Kawai said. “So why is he pushing for such a bill? It’s because he has the Upper House election in mind and wants to sustain public attention until then.”