Indecision is a much-criticized feature of Japanese politics. Diet sessions are rife with unproductive wrangling as the ruling and opposition camps dispute the timing of the submission of bills while avoiding constructive discussions on them.
Making matters worse, because the Constitution stipulates that Cabinet members must be present at the Diet in case they are called upon, they are frequently caught up in time-consuming committee sessions that prevent them from doing the work of government or making diplomatic trips abroad.
Now that the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has a comfortable majority in both chambers of the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to reform the system as a means to impose his agenda without the usual hindrances.
Here are some systemic problems in the Diet system and how the ruling bloc is trying to resolve them:
What are the issues being debated?
Wide-ranging Diet reform has been talked about for some time. One of the most prominent issues involves reducing the amount of time the prime minister and other Cabinet members must spend in the Diet.
The ruling party wants vice ministers to field questions from the opposition in lieu of the prime minister and his team.
“Vice ministers are high-ranking government officials certified by the Emperor,” LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said last week. “There is no reason they cannot fulfill that responsibility.”
Why does the ruling party think change is necessary?
Article 63 of the Constitution stipulates that Cabinet members are obliged to attend Diet sessions if summoned.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for ministers to spend up to seven hours at budget committee sessions responding to opposition questions, no matter how tangentially related they are to the budget. In some cases, the questions expected are never raised.
The long hours at the Diet prevent ministers from carrying out their ministerial or diplomatic duties, to the possible detriment of the national interest.
“Former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (of the Democratic Party of Japan) used to say that the Diet system really wears Cabinet ministers out and leaves them with little energy,” said Norihiko Narita, a professor at Surugadai University. Narita was a secretary under former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa of the now defunct Japan New Party, and a Noda adviser.
What’s the situation in other countries?
Japanese prime ministers spend longer hours at the Diet than many of their overseas counterparts.
According to Japan Akademeia, an organization that hosts forums for political leaders, Japan’s prime minister spent 127 days at the Diet in 2011, compared with 36 days in Parliament for Britain’s prime minister from December 2008 to November 2011.
The French president was seen in the legislature for 12 days in the year to July 2008, while the German chancellor appeared for 11 days from November 2009 to November 2010.
“People do not expect (British) prime ministers to be in the House of Commons every day,” said Tina Burrett, an assistant professor of political science at Temple University Japan Campus. “He is actually more productive when he is not sitting on the benches listening to debates.”
Yet Burrett cautioned that a prime minister is wise to make time for Cabinet members and junior politicians to, if nothing else, give the impression their concerns and cares are being addressed. Otherwise, problems might result if they rebel against the prime minister, perhaps expressing their displeasure by voting against government-sponsored legislation.
“David Cameron is not really good at it and Margaret Thatcher had a similar problem as well. She thought it was a waste of time. She thought she could do a lot more in her office working,” said Burrett. “In the end she lost power, because her own party toppled her. Maybe if she spent a bit more time, she would have saved her premiership. So prime ministers have to balance.”
What is the reaction of the opposition camp?
Grilling a prime minister and the Cabinet at budget panel sessions gives the opposition camp a chance to raise its profile.
When the LDP was in the opposition during the DPJ’s time in office from 2009 to 2012, it took every opportunity to grill DPJ leaders in the Diet.
In some cases, the grilling sessions, albeit ostensibly held to deliberate legislation, have successfully held the government in check, rather than simply serving as an opportunity to grandstand. The bribe-taking and violations of the Public Offices Law committed by former LDP Lower House member Muneo Suzuki were exposed when he was summoned to testify before the Diet, leading to his arrest.
Now that the LDP is once again in control, there are fewer chances to root out such wrongdoing, and the opposition has little bargaining power. The DPJ in particular has criticized the ruling party’s proposal to exempt ministers from the long hours in legislative sessions, saying the ruling party is subverting the Diet process, despite the fact that members of recent DPJ Cabinets had to take the same grillings.
“One of the many flaws of politics is that when politicians are no longer in the ruling camp, they criticize those who are for actions they, too, engaged in,” said Narita.
On Wednesday, the DPJ approved a set of Diet reform proposals that include allocating more time for the opposition to deliberate and making the question time between the prime minister and opposition leaders more robust.
Japan introduced the question time system in 1999, based on the British system of having the prime minister spend 30 minutes fielding questions from the opposition every Wednesday.
But when Noda was in power, this happened only four times. Abe has made himself available only once since becoming prime minister in December, following the LDP’s landslide victory.
Can Cabinet ministers visit other countries when the Diet is in session?
The rules of both houses state that their steering committees must give lawmakers and ministers permission to go abroad when the Diet is in session.
Cabinet members typically avoid taking big trips during the relatively short extra sessions in fall, unless to attend an important international conference.
Even before both sides started debating this issue, however, Abe took it upon himself last week to visit Turkey to attend a reception to mark the opening of a Japanese-funded subway line under the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul and to push a nuclear power plant deal.
What happens if the Diet steering committees do not authorize the trips?
The Cabinet Office says that on several occasions, prime ministers have traveled overseas without permission.
Although no official punitive measures are taken, lawmakers risk retribution, especially if the Diet is divided.
For example, former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi of the LDP was fired as head of the Upper House Environmental Committee in May for extending her stay in China without permission from the steering committee. The opposition camp said her absence forced the cancellation of a committee meeting. A resolution to remove her was passed by the Upper House, where the ruling bloc did not have a majority until the July election.
Are other reforms needed?
Under the current system, bills that are not voted on during a session are scrapped. Government-sponsored bills have to be re-sent to the Diet, wasting time and taxpayer money.
Four government-sponsored bills were killed in the 150-day ordinary session that ended July 26 after a censure motion was passed in the Upper House.
The four critical bills, including one to set up a government-backed corporation to let regional utilities supply electricity to each other, were approved by the Cabinet on Oct. 15, when the extraordinary Diet session began.
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