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Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011
The basics of being a lawmaker at the Diet
Diet members are often addressed as "sensei" (teacher) and seem to enjoy privileges ranging from high salaries and chauffeur-driven cars to free first-class flights and luxury "green car" seats in bullet trains.
But what do they do every day? Are they always in Tokyo working in the Diet? Can anyone become a lawmaker?
Following are basic questions and answers about being a national lawmaker:
What are the criteria for becoming a lawmaker?
Lawmakers must be Japanese citizens who are at least 25 years old to enter the Lower House and 30 to enter the Upper House. They are required to pay ¥3 million if running for seats in electoral districts or ¥6 million if joining by proportional representation.
If a candidate wins or at least garners a certain number of votes, they will get their money back.
If they fail, the Election Administration Commission keeps the money, its website says.
Candidates must be able to afford the expensive campaign fee, which covers the cost of renting campaign cars, printing posters and hiring staff. But under the Public Office Election Law, some of these costs are also funded with taxpayer money and by political parties who have an interest in a particular candidate.
It is often said candidates must have a "jiban" (base), "kanban" (signboard), and "kaban," (bag), or a strong electoral support base, wide recognition from the public, and a bag full of money to compete.
How many lawmakers are there in the Diet?
There are 480 in the House of Representatives and 242 in the House of Councilors.
Representatives serve four years, but their terms are usually shorter because the prime minister sometimes dissolves the chamber to call a snap election. Councilors serve six years, with half of them replaced every three years by election.
Women account for 54 of the members in the Lower House and 44 in the Upper House.
In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan campaigned on a promise to shrink the Lower House by 80 members to pare costs and reform the legislature. Although it ended up ousting the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in the historic election, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the current DPJ leader, hasn't been able to make any headway on the initiative.
How are bills drafted ?
A bill needs to be endorsed by at least 20 members to be submitted in the Lower House and at least 10 to be submitted in the Upper House. Any budget-related bill requires the support of at least 50 Diet members in the lower chamber and 20 in the upper.
Since drafting a bill requires technical knowledge, however, the Legislation Bureau provides assistance to politicians in both houses of the Diet.
In fact, most bills are actually drafted by bureaucrats and submitted by the Cabinet, rather than by politicians.
Are lawmakers always at the Diet?
Yes, when the Diet is in session. They are based in the Diet members' office across from the main Diet building. Lawmakers deliberate on bills during the ordinary Diet session, which lasts 150 days and usually starts in mid-January, with priority on clearing budgetary bills for the coming fiscal year, which starts in April.
Extraordinary sessions are usually held after the summer recess until sometime in December. In addition, each lawmaker belongs to one of the 17 committees in each chamber, therefore they also participate in deliberations and study sessions organized by their respective committees.
When the sessions are in recess, lawmakers often go back to their districts to meet their supporters. Some also go on study trips overseas.
How much money do they make and what perks do they get?
Based on Article 49 of the Constitution, Diet members receive about ¥1.3 million a month. Including bonuses, their annual income amounts to about ¥21 million for rank and file members, and ¥37 million for the Lower House speaker and the Upper House president. In addition, each member receives about ¥1 million a month for transportation and stationery fees.
They are entitled to hire up to three secretaries with taxpayer money. They also get free train tickets, including for bullet trains, and four free round-trip plane tickets a month.
In November, the DPJ suggested cutting lawmakers' salaries by 10 percent — a plan they hope to submit as a bill at the upcoming Diet session.
Do they get special privileges?
Under Article 50 of the Constitution, Diet members are immune from arrest while the Diet is in session, except in special circumstances provided for by law. Any members arrested before a Diet session opens will be freed to attend the session if so requested by either chamber.
In addition, members of both houses will "not be held liable" outside the House for speeches, debates or votes cast inside the House, according to the Constitution.
What is a "zoku-giin"?
This term literally means "policy tribe lawmaker." These individuals have expertise in certain fields, including construction or agriculture, as well as strong links to that particular industry. Some Diet members who were formerly bureaucrats tend to be experts in the areas their ministries controlled.
Especially when the LDP was in power, the term zoku-giin described lawmakers with vested interests who wielded their influence by indulging in pork-barrel politics.
Is there a dress code?
Yes. According to the Upper House's official website, lawmaker's ought to wear jackets while in the Diet building and must remove hats, coats and scarves when inside a chamber or other meeting room. The only time they are exempt from the tie and jacket rule is between June and September, unless they are attending a plenary session.