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Monday, May 10, 1999

Reform of Diet debate questioned


Staff writer

Diet deliberations where bureaucrats answer most of the questions addressed to Cabinet ministers have long been criticized as lacking full-fledged policy debate by elected officials.

In late April, the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the Liberal Party, submitted to the Lower House a bill to minimize the presence of bureaucrats in Diet sessions and expand the role of lawmakers in debate.

They expect to pass the bill during the current 150-day regular Diet session, which runs through mid-June.

However, observers say success of the proposed reform depends on whether lawmakers can change their basic concept of Diet deliberations. Some are simply skeptical of whether Cabinet ministers are competent enough to speak clearly on policy matters without the support of bureaucrats.

The current Diet Law says that the Cabinet can appoint bureaucrats from ministries in charge of matters under discussion at a Diet committee as "government members" of the panel to assist Cabinet ministers.

They are supposed to supplement statements by Cabinet ministers by giving more detailed information and answering technical questions from committee members. But when Cabinet ministers lack expertise in their own jurisdiction -- as is often the case -- the bureaucrats do most of the talking.

The two parties are proposing abolishment of the system.

It worked under the LDP's longtime monopoly of power until 1993, during which opposition parties posed nit-picking questions to the government to emphasize their policy differences during Diet sessions, said Tadamori Oshima, LDP chief of a joint LDP-Liberal Party working team on the issue.

Opposition lawmakers tried to hit upon inconsistencies in the government's answers to demand clarification and stall Diet proceedings -- an effective weapon.

Fearful of making mistakes, Cabinet ministers have tended to only answer those questions -- providing no debate -- while depending heavily on bureaucrats, he said.

"But times have changed," Oshima said. "Now is the time when lawmakers must present real policy debate before the public."

He said it has almost been a tradition that government representatives only answer questions, but not make counter-arguments to opposition lawmakers' opinions.

But to achieve the reform's aim, the working team members agreed it should be clarified that Cabinet ministers have the right to make counter-arguments during committee debate.

The LDP and Liberal Party agreed that while minimizing bureaucrats' roles, more politicians should be allowed to represent the government.

According to a scenario drawn up by the two parties, 26 Diet members will be appointed to deputy minister posts -- up to three for each ministry -- to assist Cabinet members in line with the planned reorganization of government bodies in January 2001.

In addition, 27 other lawmakers will be given new positions at ministries and agencies so they can also take part in Diet committee debates from the government side.

Some say the proposed reform sounds too idealistic.

A government official who helps bureaucrats speaking at Diet committee sessions said it is unrealistic for Cabinet ministers, who have been very dependent on bureaucrats, to answer policy questions properly by themselves.

"One merit of the current system is that government officials can provide an accurate answer to every question, even if they are unexpected," he said, adding that the system is key to smooth Diet committee sessions.

However, reform advocates say they need to change the system to correct the politicians' excessive dependence on bureaucrats.

"The current system (of allowing bureaucrats to answer committee questions) has bred politicians who do not think and express themselves," said Sadao Hirano, a working team member from the Liberal Party.

Reform of the bureaucrat-led Diet debates is one of the five key policy accords reached by the LDP and Liberal Party when they agreed to form a governing coalition in January. It was strongly urged by the Liberal Party led by Ichiro Ozawa, a longtime advocate of giving stronger administrative power to politicians over bureaucrats.

The number of deputy minister posts proposed by the Liberal Party was halved during the subsequent talks with the LDP, which sought a cut to below 26, Hirano said. But the party made necessary concessions to launch the new system quickly, he said.

In fact, the bill submitted last month was the result of a series of compromises between the two parties, some of which may spoil its objective.

The two parties agreed that bureaucrats can be summoned to speak before a Diet committee when necessary, such as when session members need technical answers from government officials.

Although they explain that these bureaucrats will only be allowed to attend on special occasions, specifics remain unclear.



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