The Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole lawmaking organ of the State. Thus reads Article 41 of the Constitution.
Political insiders say, however, that the Policy Affairs Research Council of the Liberal Democratic Party actually wields greater decision-making power within the nation’s lawmaking machinery, and that the decisions it makes are those sought by the bureaucracy.
Under a long-established informal agreement dating to the late 1960s between the government and the LDP, whose grip on power has been almost unbroken since its establishment in the 1950s, the policy council has the right to screen all government-sponsored bills before they are submitted to the Diet.
Technically, the council is merely an internal LDP organ with no authority. But in reality, if the council rejects a bill, it won’t become law.
“Whether a bill will clear the Diet or not largely depends on the council. That’s the power it wields,” said Hideyuki Aizawa, a veteran LDP politician who served as a House of Representatives member from 1976 to 2003.
Policy conclusions reached by the council effectively become party decisions, binding all LDP members to support them in Diet votes — even if the bills in question run contrary to members’ own personal creed or conscience.
Thus, the existence of the policy council has made Diet deliberations “a mere farce,” according to Masaru Nishio, a professor of public administration at International Christian University in Tokyo.
“The Diet (debate) has hollowed out because of the Policy Affairs Research Council,” Nishio said.
In fact, the ruling bloc and opposition forces often spend more time fighting over the deliberation schedule of key bills than over their content.
Opposition forces have thus chosen to boycott deliberations in an effort to appeal to voters, instead of using their debate skills to persuade ruling-bloc lawmakers to change their minds.
“In the Diet, we don’t discuss matters we’ve already discussed within the party,” said Aizawa, stressing the unity of LDP lawmakers during Diet deliberations. “All the bills that the ruling bloc submits should be enacted, because otherwise it could lose face.”
The policy council’s clout, however, lies in its institutional power to give a bill its final approval, not in its ability to draw it up, said Jinyo Kaneko, a professor of politics at Toin University of Yokohama.
“The LDP is a mere runner for bureaucrats. Bureaucrats draw up bills, and the LDP’s role is to get the bills to clear the Diet,” Kaneko said.
The LDP’s policy council has 12 divisions, each of which corresponds to a government ministry or agency.
During their frequent early morning meetings at LDP headquarters, lawmakers are usually briefed by bureaucrats and submit requests for changes to prepared legislative drafts.
Since the policy panel has few researchers, it is incapable of drawing up bills on its own.
Although an increasing number of bills have been drawn up by Diet members themselves in recent years, “Almost all the bills that become law are the ones proposed by the government,” Aizawa said.
Through this policymaking mechanism, bureaucrats have long maintained a powerful influence, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with politicians.
Ruling party politicians receive from bureaucrats favorable pork-barrel policy measures, and in return get the bills they draw up approved, according to Kaneko of Toin University of Yokohama.
This arrangement gave birth to the powerful “zoku giin,” a term literally translated as “tribal lawmakers.”
As members of the LDP policy council, lawmakers have become experts in certain areas and have close ties with vested interests, Kaneko said.
Muneo Suzuki, a former Lower House member who was arrested in 2002 for accepting bribes, is a good example of zoku giin.
Foreign Ministry officials relied heavily on Suzuki to create a consensus within the LDP and gain the party’s approval for their policies.
In return, ministry officials reportedly provided confidential diplomatic information to Suzuki and allegedly gave a construction company that supported him favorable treatment.
Construction ministry officials have also worked closely with lawmakers who have ties with the industry.
While lawmakers endorsed the ministry’s grand visions for road and railway projects, the ministry bureaucrats brought pork-barrel projects to the constituencies of powerful LDP lawmakers.
Yet the LDP panel’s power seemed to have waned soon after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office, political insiders say.
Koizumi, backed by high public approval ratings, has managed to get the government to adopt an austere fiscal policy in compiling budgets.
He has also striven to reform state-backed corporations, despite mounting opposition from LDP lawmakers.
“He behaves as if he was a dictator,” said Shizuka Kamei, a veteran LDP lawmaker and former head of the LDP Policy Affairs Research Council.
Kamei has repeatedly proposed aggressive fiscal spending plans — but has been ignored by Koizumi.
Kamei said the LDP policy panel “has not functioned” under the Koizumi Cabinet.
Nevertheless, when it comes to having bills approved by the Diet, Koizumi has been hamstrung.
In recent months, the prime minister has been forced to strike compromises on many of his key reform proposals, including the privatization of four public highway bodies.
The four firms have been criticized for building pork-barrel road projects at the behest of ruling lawmakers.
Koizumi declared a victory in December 2002 when an advisory panel issued radical proposals to scale down current expressway construction plans.
But when the infrastructure ministry, which worked closely with “road tribe” lawmakers, drew up privatization legislation, his aggressive reform initiatives were not reflected.
Koizumi then gave his tacit approval to the emasculated privatization legislation, which was approved by the Cabinet earlier this month.
“Koizumi failed because he had advocated what he could never carry out” without the cooperation of the ruling parties, Kamei said.
Despite Koizumi’s showy political gestures, he has made little progress on reforms because he has been unable to gain the support of his own party, Aizawa said.
“No matter what he does, he can’t carry out (his reforms), such as those of the road public companies,” he said.