It appears that the Diet is not very serious about promoting clean politics, despite the fact that a spate of corruption scandals has forced a number of legislators to resign. The Diet, to be sure, has played a part in unraveling the scandals, but it has done very little to address its real challenge: enacting tough legislation on political reform and ethics.
Investigation is an important function of the Diet, but in the current context of political housecleaning, it is only part of the larger effort to repair the tarnished image of the national legislature. Yet there has been little or no movement toward legislating effective measures against corruption. It is hard to escape the impression that the Diet has been paying lip service to reform.
It is odd that the speaker of the Lower House, Mr. Tamisuke Watanuki, is only now trying to get the ball rolling. He knows there is not much time left — less than a month — before the Diet adjourns. Yet he is now calling for basic legislation on political ethics as well as a strengthening of the Political Ethics Council. These belated initiatives, one suspects, may be designed not to establish stricter standards of political ethics so much as to defuse tensions between the ruling and opposition parties in the closing days of the regular Diet session, which opened in January.
The scandals have revealed a typical pattern of “structural” corruption. An aide to a Diet member steps into the bidding process of a government-subsidized public works project so that a constructor in the lawmaker’s constituency can win the contract. The Diet member receives, if only indirectly, huge kickbacks from the successful bidder.
This influence-peddling by proxy appears to be so deeply embedded in the politics of pork that past attempts at tough reform have invariably fizzled out. The latest bid to toughen the antigraft law, a move long overdue, suggests that politicians are not very positive about stamping out corruption in their backyard.
That law, enacted two years ago, is riddled with loopholes, as evidenced by a tax evasion case involving a top aide to Mr. Koichi Kato, former secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party. The aide allegedly pocketed kickbacks he had received from a local builder. The case is also a reminder that the Diet has failed to pass effective anticorruption legislation.
One big loophole is that legislators can peddle influence with impunity through their privately hired secretaries, who are outside the reach of the existing law. Revisions proposed respectively by the ruling coalition and opposition parties would include, as they should, these personal aides, defined as “those who assist legislators’ political activities in their capacity as the latter’s employees.”
The opposition version, however, goes a step further and includes legislators’ parents, spouses and children or brothers and sisters. Another important difference from the coalition plan is that legislators would be punishable even if requests for favors or links to official duties — requisite conditions for punishment stated in the current law — were not proved.
No doubt the opposition plans would put more teeth in the antigraft legislation. However, there has been little discussion between the ruling and opposition parties on these and other proposals. What’s more, no progress has been made on other reform bills. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s plan to restrict donations from public works contractors has been virtually ignored.
No action has been taken, either, to improve the rigged system of government-paid aides, some of whom have also played proxy for their influence-peddling legislators. Other problems involving some of these official secretaries include pay misuse and favoritism. But legislators have been timid about attacking these internal abuses, perhaps afraid of stirring up a hornet’s nest in their midst.
Last month, the National Congress to Create a New Japan, a group of private experts, proposed that the Diet poll all its members about the flow of money involving them and their aides. On that basis, the group said, the legislature should produce a realistic road map for political reform. This “emergency” proposal, presented to the Lower House speaker and the Upper House president, is proof that the general public is deeply disappointed at the lack of hard-hitting reform.
The Diet needs to do much more to purge corruption from politics. It is not enough to grill scandal-tainted legislators and pressure them to take responsibility. The problem is not that just a few apples in the barrel are rotten, but that the whole barrel is decaying. It is high time that all members of the Diet demonstrated their courage to clean up the rotting system of money politics.
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