Ramping up debate in the Diet

The ruling coalition and two major opposition parties have agreed on some measures for reform of Diet proceedings, including reducing requirements on the prime minister to attend committee sessions and regularizing one-on-one debate between the prime minister and opposition leaders.

Behind the measures are calls from the ruling bloc to make Diet deliberations more efficient and enable Cabinet members to spend more time on other duties such as diplomatic tours and international meetings.

Lawmakers and the parties need to make sure that the steps will not result in letting government leaders reduce their exposure to the legislature’s scrutiny. The goal should be to encourage more substantial debate on policy issues.

According to the accord reached among the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito, the Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), the prime minister’s attendance in Budget Committee deliberations will be limited to initial basic question and answer sessions, wrap-up sessions before the final committee vote is taken as well as sessions for intensive deliberations on certain issues where his attendance is deemed necessary.

When other Cabinet members need to leave Tokyo to attend international conferences, senior vice ministers or parliamentary vice ministers will take their place to answer questions in the Diet.

The parties also concurred that a one-on-one debate between the prime minister and opposition leaders should be held once a month, and that legislative bills submitted by opposition lawmakers — which tend to be shelved without being discussed at all — should be actively taken up in the Diet. The parties plan to apply the new rules in the Lower House beginning in an extraordinary session to be held this fall.

Under the Constitution, the prime minister and other Cabinet members must attend sessions in either house of the Diet “when their presence is required in order to give answers or explanations.” But there has long been criticism — mainly from the LDP — that the prime minister and key Cabinet ministers are tied up with Diet committee sessions for much longer hours and days than their counterparts in other countries, which often makes it difficult for Japanese leaders to make overseas visits for diplomatic talks or attend international conferences while the Diet is in session except on weekends or long holidays.

Even before the agreement with the opposition camp was made, the LDP-New Komeito alliance, which has controlled both chambers of the Diet since the July 2013 Upper House election, held the upper hand in setting the agenda and scheduling Diet proceedings, making more room for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic tours around the world.

For the Diet to clear the fiscal 2014 budget, intensive deliberation sessions at the Budget Committee requiring Abe’s attendance were held for a total of nine days in the two houses combined, compared with 14 days a year ago. Last October, Abe managed to pay a weekday visit to Turkey while the Diet was in session as the LDP-dominated Lower House Steering Committee took control of the itinerary setting.

Meanwhile, one-on-one debates between the prime minister and opposition leaders, which were launched in 2000 for the purpose of galvanizing Diet deliberations, have in fact been held less and less frequently in recent years. They were supposed to provide opposition leaders a prime opportunity to challenge government policies on key issues.

Initially the parties agreed that such debates would be held once a week except when the prime minister must attend a plenary session or other committee sessions in the same week. However, one-on-one debates have so far been held only three times since Abe returned to the government’s helm in December 2012, including the debate held Wednesday.

Since parties with only a small number of seats in the Diet cannot have their leaders take part in such debates, the opposition camp reportedly puts priority on having the prime minister attend Budget Committee sessions instead.

Party leaders should use one-on-one debates more to publicly clarify their own positions on key policy issues, especially when divisive policy matters, such as constitutional interpretation of the right to collective self-defense, are on the table in the Diet.

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