The impact of Upper House president

Historic first for opposition may put the brakes on ruling bloc agenda


For the first time in the postwar period, the House of Councilors has an opposition lawmaker as president, 66-year-old Satsuki Eda.

Here are some questions and answers as to why this historic event occurred and what the role of the president actually is:

How is the Upper House president chosen?

In both Diet chambers, the party that holds the most seats following an election traditionally puts forward one of its members to take the top post. The party that comes in second in the election proposes the vice president.

In the July 29 Upper House election, the Democratic Party of Japan became the chamber’s largest party, pushing the Liberal Democratic Party out of the top position for the first time ever.

Eda thus became president and the LDP’s Akiko Santo, 55, became vice president.

What factors determine the selection?

Experience as a lawmaker, celebrity status or political stance are seen as key determinants that parties weigh when choosing a candidate.

Eda has served four terms in the Lower House and three in the Upper House. He is also a former chief of the Science and Technology Agency.

Asked about Eda’s inauguration as Upper House president, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on Aug. 6: “I believe he is a man of character with long experience. I hope he will manage the Diet by taking a fair and neutral stance.”

The LDP’s Santo, for her part, is a former actress and has served six terms in the Upper House.

What authority does the Upper House president have?

The president and vice president of the Upper House are expected to drop their party affiliations and forgo voting on legislation. Such neutrality is considered a way of ensuring smooth deliberations. However, the president is allowed a tie-breaking vote. In this way the position is similar to that of the vice president of the United States, who doubles as president of the Senate and can also vote to break a tie.

Presidents set schedules for plenary sessions, announce recesses and adjourn sessions — although in practice the main task of working out schedules is handled by the Standing Committee for House Management.

Since procedural powers such as these can make or break a bill, drama sometimes ensues when the opposition camp feels slighted.

For instance, in 2004 when three pension-reform bills sponsored by the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc were submitted to the Upper House, opposition parties vehemently opposed to them submitted a motion of no-confidence against the sitting president, the LDP’s Hiroyuki Kurata.

This was a largely symbolic effort to slow the eventual passage of the bills.

However, opposition lawmakers stationed themselves outside the plenary session, physically preventing Kurata from attending the deliberations.

In his forced absence, DPJ Vice President Shoji Motooka dropped his nominally neutral stance and took it upon himself to adjourn the session, briefly delaying passage of the bill. Kurata finally managed to slip past the barricade and reconvene the session. Later that day, the no-confidence motion was swiftly slapped down by ruling-coalition lawmakers and the bills were passed.

The Upper House president also has the legal power to warn lawmakers who speak out of order, just like the Lower House speaker. In practice, though, this doesn’t stop members from any party from heckling each other.

The president’s other duties are ceremonial. The president must attend prime minister inaugurations at the Imperial Palace and annual events to mourn the atomic-bomb victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

How will filling the presidential post by a longtime DPJ member affect politics?

DPJ politicians hope Eda will subtly wield his authority in the party’s favor, much like Kurata did in years past.

With a de facto member of the DPJ wielding such authority in the Upper House, the LDP will no longer find it easy to ram bills through the Diet, as it did earlier this year in the Lower House with three other pension-related bills.

It is thus now uncertain if a bill to extend the special law allowing the Maritime Self-Defense Force deployment to the Indian Ocean will clear the Diet before its Nov. 1 expiration.

If the DPJ, which opposes the extension, manages to slow deliberations in the Upper House, ultimately preventing a vote for 60 days, the bill would die.

The bill could be passed by a two-thirds vote in the Lower House, and the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc has the numbers to do so. But in the event of a 60-day delay in the Upper House, there will be insufficient time remaining for the bill to be debated in the Lower House and put to another vote.

How long is the Upper House president’s term?

All members of the 242-seat chamber are elected to six-year terms, with elections for half the seats held every three years. Lower House members are meanwhile elected for four-year terms in principle. In times of political turmoil, however, the prime minister can dissolve the lower chamber and call a general election, putting every seat up for grabs, well before four years have passed.

The prime minister, however, does not have the power to dissolve the Upper House and call an election for that chamber. This encourages its members to take a longer-term view when deliberating bills, which is why the Upper House is sometimes referred to as “the chamber of good sense.”

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