Enhancing Parliamentary Functionality (Symposium Report 4)
December 4, 2008
The last two sessions of the symposium discussed ways to improve parliamentary deliberation and the relationships between parliamentary houses and political parties. The symposium as a whole was a great opportunity for the British and Japanese participants to exchange information and opinions on their political systems.
Click here for the symposium program and list of panelists.
For an overview of the British parliamentary system, click here .
To learn about the Japanese parliamentary system, click here .
For a report of the first two sessions of the symposium, click here .
Session 3: Improving Parliamentary Deliberations
Professor Reiko Oyama of Komazawa University noted that legislative deliberations serve two roles: one as a forum for debate between the government and opposition parties, and the other as a means of talking over and improving government-sponsored bills and of overseeing the government. In Britain, the ruling party and government are one and the same, making it difficult to interject objections to government policies in the decision-making process. In Japan, meanwhile, neither role of the legislative process is being properly fulfilled. Some political reforms to bring in debates between party leaders have been instituted as part of the opposing political party format, but this has not resulted in as much progress as might be expected.
In Japan, it will be nearly impossible to realize a situation where the government is the same as the ruling party so long as coalition government remains the rule of the day. Moreover, since the Japanese system is one of tripartite separation of powers, any development of a situation where the government is operated entirely within the legislature would likely be unconstitutional. In Japan, where the government is not the same as the ruling parties, the procedure of ruling and opposition parties constructively exchanging opinions in Diet deliberations and seeking to refine legislation should work better than it would in Britain. However, committees in the Diet actually end up becoming forums for clashes between ruling and opposition parties, and as a result the Diet ends up accomplishing little along these lines. In fact the House of Commons in the British Parliament spends more than 1,000 hours a year in plenary deliberations, while the Japanese House of Representatives' total is just 50-60 hours. The Japanese cabinet wields little authority: it cannot set a schedule for deliberations on its bills once they are submitted to the Diet, and its ability to amend bills is also hampered. In the past this has led the cabinet to gain the agreement of ruling party legislators before submitting legislation, and this has made Diet debate an empty formality.
Select Committees in the British Parliament
Alex Brazier, director of the Parliament and Government Programme at the Hansard Society, began his presentation by stating that in the British parliamentary system, the executive is powerful: generally speaking, the government can get done what it wants to get done.
Accountability in the British Parliament is provided, in the main, by select committees that exist in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Select committees bring together members of all parties, and the atmosphere is free of the adversarial battles that define plenary sessions. Most of the work of select committees concerns monitoring the actions of the government, and each government department has a select committee that shadows it.
The role of the select committees is fourfold. First, they examine and comment on the policy of the government departments, such as by scrutinizing draft bills. Second, they examine the expenditure of the department and its agencies. Third, they examine the administration of the department, including scrutinizing major appointments and the implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives. Fourth, they assist the members of both chambers through committee evidence and reports.
The select committees have wide powers to get to the root of a problem and they strive very hard to formulate consensus-based reports that constitute cross-party views of how departments are functioning. The working style focuses on evidence, which increases the likelihood of consensus being reached. The members of a select committee usually work in a collegial manner. They do not see their prime duty as being to the party but rather to the Parliament, so a different center of gravity develops among the committees. MPs who devote themselves to their parliamentary role establish credibility within Parliament, and are increasingly seen to have a role in balancing out the cabinet.
The chairs of select committees are now paid a salary by the state, allowing them to devote themselves to a particular subject without having to look to their party for a career path. The prime minister is required to appear before the Liaison Committee, which is composed of the chairs of the select committees. The committees have also been strengthened by the provision of greater resources. Such a system of committees, were it to be introduced into the Diet, would increase accountability in the Japanese parliamentary system.
Currently there is some debate about whether in the future select committees will be able to amend real, as opposed to draft, legislation.
Taro Kono, member of the House of Representatives (LDP), noted that in the 12 years since he was first elected to the Diet he has only spoken once in a lower house plenary session. When the LDP's Tamisuke Watanuki was speaker of the house, Kono shouted out an objection to a motion on the floor, but was ignored by the speaker, who announced that there was no objection and the motion was therefore passed. Plenary discussions only take place after all potential scenarios are run through in preliminary talks. It will be impossible to invigorate Diet deliberations unless Japan's political culture, with its lack of debate, is changed first. This may be an area that sees improvement as older legislators step aside for the next generation.
In preliminary discussions, people who will never be called up for Diet questioning trot out whatever views strike them at the time; they take no responsibility for these views afterward. This is a fundamentally flawed system. People who bear no responsibility should wield no authority; the way preliminary deliberations are carried out today is completely wrong. The backbenchers in Japan's Diet are content to sit quietly and wait to be tapped for seniority-based positions in due time. This situation must be changed.
Another problem is the fact that there is no meaningful debate carried out between ruling and opposition parties. Schedules for committee meetings are not finalized until immediately before the talks take place. Cabinet ministers are not shown the questions to be asked at a meeting until the morning it will take place, and they are left with nothing to do but read out the answers prepared for them by bureaucrats, and no time to send those answers back to the bureaucracy with suggested changes. This is a terrible state of affairs, in which the longer the opposition waits to produce its questions, the stronger the hand held by the bureaucrats becomes. An important task will be to clearly differentiate between committees responsible for administration oversight and those responsible for legislative deliberations. Ensuring that committee chairs are selected on a basis other than ruling party choices will also serve to invigorate debate in the Japanese Diet.
Goshi Hosono, member of the House of Representatives (DPJ), argued that the approach to preliminary deliberations lies at the root of all the parliamentary system's problems in Japan. The position of General Council chairman, one of the ruling LDP's three key executive posts, perpetuates the system in which the party's General Council carries out prior discussions of legislation. If the party were to do away with that post, the discussions would also disappear. The opposition does want to debate legislative issues, and given the chance to discuss them in Diet proceedings, including offering amendments to bills, opposition members would cease their push-and-shove tactics aimed at preventing bills from being passed. It should be possible to create an environment where the parties go through legislation line by line-not as a way to present logistical obstacles to its passage, but as a means of discussion. It may even be possible to do away with the concept of fixed sessions of the Diet. With the promise that legislation will be passed eventually, with no session closure to prevent it, the opposition parties are likely to abandon obstructionist tactics, leading to higher-quality deliberations.
In a busy legislative year, the Diet may pass around 150 bills, but the legislators themselves craft only around 20 of these. The long hours required to create a bill are all for naught if it is a minority opposition party proposing the legislation, since the bill may not even be taken up for discussion. This saps legislators of the will to participate. There is a need for each committee to designate a day for looking solely at legislator-crafted bills, thereby raising the profile of this form of legislation. To energize Diet debate, with regard to the committees mentioned by Mr. Kono, one transitional step may be to divide their scheduled time between legislative discussion and general discussion. Expanding the role of budget committees and increasing their authority is another option.
Mr. Brazier outlined how a draft bill is prepared in the British Parliament. Only a minority of draft bills are considered by committees. The early-consultation process can commence with a Green Paper (which outlines principles) and proceed with a White Paper (which includes details), after which civil servants in the department draft the bill.
The draft bill is then scrutinized by a select committee or a special committee, which studies the wording line by line, taking evidence from witnesses on the content. The select committee or special committee then publishes a report that is submitted to the government, which then decides whether to accept the recommendations made in the report. If the government rejects any of the recommendations, it is obliged to explain why. This "culture of explanation" helps to balance out a strong executive. It is Mr. Brazier's hope that in the future all bills will be preceded by draft bills.
Lord Cunningham added that select committees bring a whole new level of oversight to Parliament; this has been good for Parliament and good for government. Traditionally, the rule has been that Whips do not interfere in the work of select committees, and on occasions when governments have tried to influence reports, these moves have been strongly criticized.
Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University remarked that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are becoming more committee-based, like the legislatures in continental European countries. In that respect, the British Parliament is becoming less distinctive. One of the aims of pre-legislative scrutiny is to defuse contentious issues early on, but sometimes issues explode in the House of Commons despite not having attracted any controversy beforehand.
Turnover of committee members is high, as ambitious MPs tend to leave committees when they are offered ministerial positions. The result of this is that members do not always establish the expertise they need to discharge their responsibilities.
The Japanese participants came out largely in favor of the establishment of select committees in the Diet. Mr. Kono noted that setting up committees capable of interfacing with individual ministries and agencies as they debated administrative oversight and budgetary issues would be ideal for the Japanese parliament. Masahiko Shibayama, member of the House of Representatives (LDP), added that opposition legislators were seeking to make budgetary committee meetings a forum for debate on ministers' scandals and misstatements, going against the purpose of those bodies, and that he was fully in favor of splitting specialized discussion from other types of debate.
Professor J. A. A. Stockwin of the University of Oxford argued that the two things that have to be assessed in Japan are the institutions that make up the parliamentary system and the political culture (defined as the basic expectations and habits of mind that have grown up over a long period). He argued against the view that Japan's culture of consensus means that Western models are of no use in the reform process.
Professor Oyama proposed three measures to invigorate Diet debate: (1) the creation of a system allowing easier participation of the cabinet in the legislation amendment process during Diet proceedings, (2) the establishment of "question time" allowing legislators to ask for government answers on any topic during plenary sessions, and (3) the production of Diet reports on administrative oversight, legislative discussion, and other subjects in order to promote nonpartisan debate.
Session 4: The Relationship Between Parliamentary Houses and Parties
Akihisa Nagashima, member of the House of Representatives (DPJ), noted that as the two-party system takes root in Japan, it brings with it a growing possibility that the majority party in either house of the Diet will change in any given lower- or upper-house election, thereby making the "twisted" divided Diet a permanent state of affairs. Theoretically speaking, a parliamentary cabinet system is easier to realize when the legislature has only one house. Most of the other countries using bicameral parliaments position the primary house as the dominant one. In the Japanese Diet, the House of Representatives is superior, but this superiority is in many ways unclear. In the case of budgetary issues and treaties with other nations, the Japanese Constitution defines lower house decisions as the final decisions of the entire Diet, but in terms of their lawmaking functions the two houses are practically equals. It must be recognized that the Japanese system does not give the primary house overall control, which leaves the door open for failures in the legislative process.
What solutions are available, then? One is to amend the Constitution to make the Diet a unicameral institution. Nations like New Zealand and Denmark have taken this route. If amendment proves difficult, the next option is to improve legislative operations, getting the House of Councillors to practice restraint in issuing bills related to the parties' policy manifestos and budgetary matters. A second solution involves giving the upper house its own functions in areas like administrative oversight and accounting and leaving debate on matters of long-term import, like bioethics and Japan's imperial system, in its hands. As a third solution, the joint committees formed when the houses' positions differ could be composed of people in positions of responsibility, such as the secretary-general and chairman of the Policy Research Council in the LDP, who would properly debate the issues. As another option, joint committee membership could be opened to all members of both houses. Given the higher number of seats in the House of Representatives, its voice would naturally hold more sway in Diet operations as a result.
Mr. Shibayama noted that the ossified systems of the House of Councillors ensured that the popular will was slow to be reflected there. As a venue for clashes based on party lines, meanwhile, it is no different from the House of Representatives. If Japan were to adopt a unicameral parliament, though, what could be expected to happen? Nonaligned members of the remaining house would vote according to the mood of the moment, and candidates would hammer on a limited range of points to gain support from the electorate in elections. The lack of checks against politicians in office until the next election would also be a cause for concern. The bicameral system should be left intact, given the importance of the checks and balances now in place between the two houses of the Diet. As another option, the upper house could decrease its party-based politicization and select its members based on their functional specializations, on their representation of certain regions of the country, and-if Japan introduces a new system of larger "states" to replace its current prefectures-on indirect selections of candidates from the new states' legislatures. The upper house needs to be a forum for long-term debates drawing on specialized understanding of the issues. In terms of division of authority between the houses, it should be possible to give the House of Representatives primacy in budgetary matters while the House of Councillors focuses on accountancy. Of course, given the interconnectedness of budgets and national accounting this approach may lead to problems.
A major issue is how to reconcile the two houses when their positions do not mesh. Japan should consider amending its Constitution so that the lower house can overturn upper-house rejections of bills it has passed with a simple or a three-fifths majority, rather than the two-thirds majority presently required. The law should also be amended so that Diet appointments of personnel are left mainly up to the House of Representatives. Today the activities of joint committees are largely ceremonial. The two houses should supply members to these committees based on their total numbers of seats, secure ample time for proper deliberations, and reach decisions with a simple majority, not the two-thirds votes now required. Another possible reform would be to include members of the political parties' Diet Affairs Committees in the joint committees. It will also be important to set up subcommittees and multiparty conferences on a case-by-case basis. Diet members must not consider it shameful to take part in talks on modifying legislation that has been submitted for their consideration.
A Comparison of the Japanese and British Political Systems
Professor Stockwin pointed out that following the Second World War, the Allies modeled the Japanese political system on the British model rather than the American one. But since 1952, the Japanese system has had five characteristics that illustrate its divergence from its British model: the bureaucracy exercises power; a single party, the LDP, dominates; institutional factionalism is rife in the political parties; candidates are more important than the party at election time, especially in rural areas; and prime ministers change more frequently, and rarely hold office for long enough to consolidate their power.
There has been no coalition government in recent British history. In part this is because a government that has been in power a long time is likely to seem tired and will invariably have made policy mistakes that voters will remember when voting in the next general election. The Japanese political system has favored single-party dominance, but that has recently been mitigated by two factors. The first is that since the 1990s the LDP has had to govern in league with one small party, and the second is the DPJ's victory in the most recent elections for the upper chamber.
Professor Stockwin argued that in both Japan and the United Kingdom, the parties have moved from ideological competition to pragmatic competition. Since the 1960s, Japanese politics has shed much of its ideological baggage, though in the late 1990s there was a right wing resurgence that reached its apotheosis under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Governments in the United Kingdom are subject to fewer checks and balances than exist in the American system; therefore, the best hope of the opposition is to undermine government to influence the next election's results. Governments in Japan, in contrast, are subject to more internal opposition, as is evinced by factional clashes within parties.
The checks and balances in the Japanese system have a tendency to frustrate governments without providing for an adequate alternative. A realistic expectation that the opposition might replace the government at the next election should become a normal element in the consciousness of the Japanese electorate.
Lord Cunningham reminded participants that the bicameral parliamentary system is the global norm, and that it would certainly be unusual for a democracy to abolish one of its chambers. There is no realistic prospect of the United Kingdom moving to a unicameral system, though there is pressure to reform the upper chamber from a system in which members are appointed to one in which they are directly elected.
The prolonged dominance of a single party, Lord Cunningham suggested, was at the root of Japan's problem. Were the upper chamber to be abolished in Japan, the country would run the risk of being subject to one-party rule in perpetuity. None of the major European democracies are considering abolishing their upper chambers. In Japan, the onus should be on those who advocate abolishment of the upper chamber to explain just how exactly that would strengthen Japanese democracy.
Professor Cowley remarked that a useful byproduct of the 1999 reform of the British upper chamber (in which most of the "hereditary peers" were removed) is that the chamber is permanently hung, meaning that no one party dominates it. The result of this is that any party that controls the lower chamber will have to negotiate the passage of its legislation through the upper chamber. Lord Cunningham disagreed with this view, saying that the so-called "cross benchers" (that is, members of the House of Lords who are not officially affiliated with a political party) usually vote in line with the Conservative Party. He suspects that when the Conservative Party next form a government, the House of Lords will revert to its tradition of challenging Conservative legislation less frequently than legislation submitted by Labour governments.
Mr. Brazier commented that British debate about the upper chamber has been about its composition and powers rather than its function, and that it is the function that makes all the difference. Pointing out that there are far more amendments to bills in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons, it can be said that the government allows the upper chamber to act as a "safety valve" by making changes to legislation that the government would not want to be seen doing in the more prominent lower chamber.
The Japanese side responded with numerous comments stressing the need for change in Japan's current upper house system, which has brought about the paralysis of the divided Diet. Mr. Kono argued that there is no need whatsoever for a secondary house whose members are elected, and that Japan should form an upper house with membership selected from among state representatives following the introduction of states to replace prefectures, or failing that, should abolish the upper house outright. Mr. Nagashima concurred, proposing the drastic reduction of the House of Councillors' current authority.
Mr. Shibayama pointed out that one problem lay in the lack of a permanent committee to discuss Diet reform issues. The younger parliamentarians are the ones who should take the lead in debating ways to reform the organization. Any changes will need to be effected by legislator-produced bills, and the political parties will need to sign off on any such efforts. In a hopeful statement on the role of the people, he stated his desire to see the people of Japan watching closely to make sure the parties can carry this out.