Will shrinking the Diet solve anything?

Critics say reducing lawmakers would only harm policymaking

by Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writer

A company saddled with a hefty debt load might try to get back on a healthy track by laying off employees or reducing pay.

The same holds true for a nation trying to tackle a dire fiscal situation.

Japan, bedeviled by snowballing social security costs, can save ¥21 million a year just by cutting one lawmaker, and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is trying to remove 80 from the Lower House by the next election. If the DPJ manages it, some money would indeed be saved, but the attempt is really more of a gesture to show the public that politicians are willing to share the pain that will come with the planned hike in the consumption tax.

But some experts and lawmakers say the plan is not based on a rational analysis and trimming the number of politicians could also reduce the country’s policymaking ability.

“We’ve never really conducted a rational analysis on whether we have too many lawmakers based on the volume of policy tasks they have to be involved in,” said Hiroyuki Konishi, a DPJ member of the Upper House who was first elected in 2010.

Konishi, who has been working on economic and medical issues and drafted a bill to establish “reconstruction special zones” in the Tohoku region that will be given support measures such as tax breaks and incentives, said he is swamped with work every day, even if the public may think there are too many lawmakers in the Diet.

“I’ve been working like a dog every day, and I often stay overnight in my office. Still, the areas that I’m covering are limited,” the former bureaucrat said.

The debate on cutting the number of seats in the Lower House came under the spotlight recently when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said politicians should share the burden with the public.

The government approved a draft plan last month to raise the 5 percent consumption tax to 8 percent in April 2014 and 10 percent in October 2015. The DPJ hopes to reach an agreement on the plan with opposition parties by the end of this month.

“Politicians need to sacrifice themselves and set an example,” Noda told the Lower House Budget Committee. “Both ruling and opposition parties should openly discuss (the issue), and I strongly hope we reach a conclusion immediately.”

In 2009, when the DPJ won its landslide and swept to power, the party had pledged in its platform to cut the Lower House membership from 480 to 400. In its campaign pledges for the 2010 Upper House election, the party upped the ante by promising to take 40 seats away from the current 242 in the Upper House to reduce government spending.

The annual salary of rank-and-file Diet members is about ¥21 million, and another ¥20 million is spent on three public secretaries hired by each lawmaker. Cutting 80 Lower House seats would save the nation about ¥3.2 billion a year, the party says.

Both the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito support the cutback, but they say it should not come at the expense of small parties. However, the DPJ’s current proposal targets 80 proportional representation seats, which are considered easier for small parties to win. The Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party are against the plan.

Some critics also argue that shrinking the Lower House isn’t the best way to cut government spending.

“Compared with the huge size of the national budget, expenses for Diet members is quite limited. It’s more beneficial if the Diet members work hard and come up with more efficient ways to use the budget,” said Jun Iio, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, believes no one would benefit.

“It’s based on the idea that those in a higher position should show a good example because they’re the ones who rule the country. But they shouldn’t forget they represent voters,” Nakano said.

In fact, the number of lawmakers in Japan is not particularly high compared with European nations, he said.

According to the National Diet Library, there are 175,174 people for each of the 722 Diet members. In Britain, by comparison, the number is 43,480 people per national-level lawmaker, while it is 122,147 in Germany and 70,608 in France. The U.S. has relatively fewer national-level lawmakers, at 535, but this is due in part to its federal system, in which the states have rather broad powers.

In Japan, the number of Lower House seats had been around 500 since 1945. But it was slashed to 480 in 1999 by the then ruling LDP as a condition to form a coalition government with the Liberal Party headed by Ichiro Ozawa, who is now a DPJ kingpin.

Upper House member Konishi believes more discussions with opposition parties are needed on how many seats should be cut. Pushing forward social security reforms, for example, will require a great deal of work by Diet members, he said. “Based on that, I’m not sure if simply cutting the number of lawmakers is reasonable.”

In the meantime, some argue that lawmakers’ pay should be cut to spread the pain of national austerity.

The annual salary of U.S. lawmakers — $174,000 (about ¥13.3 million — is roughly half that of their Japanese counterparts. In the U.K., it’s £65,738 (¥8 million).

Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada said in January on NHK that lawmakers’ salaries should be cut at a time when civil servants’ income will be reduced by 8 percent. But later another DPJ executive shot that down, saying reducing the number of Lower House seats is the priority.

“We don’t need to discuss the salary cut right now,” DPJ Secretary General Azuma Koshiishi said.

Opposition parties support the idea of a salary cut, and Your Party is probably the strongest promoter. The party recently submitted a bill to reduce Diet members’ salaries by 30 percent and bonuses by 50 percent.

“I don’t think the public can accept the tax hike if we don’t share the burden,” said Your Party member and Upper House lawmaker Hiroshi Ueno, who submitted the bill to the Diet last month.

Last year, Diet members’ salaries were reduced by ¥500,000 a month for six months through October to secure more money for the Tohoku reconstruction. Ueno said the salary cut should continue.

“I know it’s tough for lawmakers, but we could do it for six months. I think we can do it again for a longer period.”

Konishi agrees the salary level of Diet members is high compared with the U.S. and U.K., but how much is required for election campaigns and the cost of hiring private secretaries should also be taken into account, he said.

“Politicians pay for their secretaries’ salaries and their activities in the electoral districts, and they tend to be in debt before they’re elected,” said Konishi who employs extra four private secretaries besides the standard three public secretaries. “So if you just look at the number, it seems like a lot of money. But not much is left (for a lawmaker), and Diet members have no retirement money and pension.”

Konishi said he thinks he needs more staff to draft bills.

“I had six people working under me when I was at the Internal Affairs and Communication Ministry. Now that I have become a politician, I can only have three public secretaries.”

Nakano of Sophia University pointed out that although lawmakers’ salaries are lower in the U.S., they receive more subsidies to employ aides. According to the National Diet Library, U.S. representatives can hire up to 22 staff members, while for senators the number of aides is unlimited.

Ueno, who has two private secretaries in addition to the three public secretaries, agrees that there should be more staff to work on policies.

“It would be better if we can discuss our salary combined with the issue of (the small number of) secretaries.”

Nakano said a more beneficial move would be to cut the government subsidies for political parties, which totaled ¥32 billion for nine parties in 2011, rather than trimming Lower House seats. But the public seems to think they need fewer lawmakers, who they feel are incapable, he said.

“We wonder how some people could even become politicians. We also have many second-generation politicians. And those at the top tend to get embroiled in scandal, so there’s no wonder why the public doesn’t want many politicians.”

Konishi agrees that improving “quality” of politicians is important. Along with the debate on pay cuts and reducing the size of the Diet, he said lawmakers should discuss how they can draw capable people to run for office and how parties can train them.

“What we need to discuss first is the process of selecting Diet members and nurturing those elected. Debating the number of politicians should come after that,” he said.