Lawmakers on the back benches chat with one another, another dozes off while yet others have simply skipped the committee session altogether

People jokingly talk about the “chaos in the Diet,” likening the situation in the legislature to the problem of classroom collapse, caused by unruly students refusing to obey rules and teachers’ orders.

In the initial weeks of the current Diet session, which opened in January, the Lower House Budget Committee saw a spate of heated debates between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Naoto Kan, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan.

However, the atmosphere in the same budget committee sessions suddenly became dull when the discussions turned to issues that did not require the attendance of the prime minister, which often means there will be little or no media coverage.

Attendance of committee members at such sessions drops sharply, as a number of lawmakers opt instead to return to their home districts to solicit the support of voters to ensure re-election.

Many Diet members are jittery over the unified nationwide local elections coming up in April. Adding to this is speculation that Koizumi will dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election sometime this year.

A veteran lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said that in these circumstances, the low attendance at Diet committee sessions is unavoidable.

“When rumors of a snap election circulate, Diet members are more interested in their re-election than in Diet debates. Nobody can stop them,” the lawmaker said.

During a session Wednesday of the Upper House Budget Committee, one lawmaker was spotted taking a nap in his seat just as transport minister Chikage Ogi was responding to a question over the recent incident in which a bullet train driver dozed off at the controls while the train was running at 270 kph.

Lawmakers seated around the person posing the questions — who is likely to be captured on TV — appear to be listening intently to the debate. However, many of the others in the room are reading newspapers or chatting with one another.

Concerned with the situation, ruling coalition officials in charge of Diet affairs agreed in January that lawmakers who duck out on a committee session before it is concluded must obtain approval from the committee’s board members.

Hidenao Nakagawa, the LDP’s Diet affairs chief, also requested at a meeting of the party’s top executives that its various policy panel gatherings be held early in the morning to prevent LDP lawmakers from being able to say they are skipping Diet sessions to attend these meetings.

In mid-February, coalition officials submitted a rare request to chairpersons of Diet committees asking that their sessions be sufficiently attended.

The committee chiefs were specifically urged to warn panel members who have a poor attendance record and to ensure full attendance, particularly when a vote is taken on legislative matters.

“Are we junior high school kids?” a junior LDP lawmaker asked as he complained about the detailed orders from party elders.

He argued that he is often too busy to attend every session. Having his name listed simultaneously on three different committee rosters, it is difficult to attend all of them, he said.

Low attendance at committee sessions can be a serious problem for Diet proceedings. A session is effectively pointless unless more than half of its members are present.

During the current 150-day session, which runs through June, more than 130 bills are scheduled to be deliberated. Because Diet members will also be busy stumping for candidates in the April elections, the ruling coalition is having trouble securing sufficient time for committee deliberations for every bill.

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