The government’s administrative reform bill is dying on the vine

Nearly a month has passed since the government submitted its administrative reform bill to the Diet, and Mainichi reports that the bill’s prospects are no better now than they were when the bill was submitted. Indeed, they are considerably worse.

With six weeks until the end of the Diet session — unless Mr. Fukuda does like Mr. Abe and gives himself an extension — the bill still has not come up for discussion in the HR. It was scheduled to be debated on 22 April, but was delayed because “there are many other bills that should be prioritized.” The bill is now scheduled to be discussed on 8 May, after Golden Week. There is no enthusiasm within the bureaucracy and little within the LDP for administrative reform, and the government, aside from Watanabe Yoshimi, minister for administrative reform, is unprepared to exert significant effort to see the bill passed.

This sounds like the perfect combination to ensure that the administrative reform plan dies an unlamented death next month.

At the same time that the LDP is distancing itself from what was an important part of the Koizumi formula, the DPJ has announced its own “Kasumigaseki reform plan.” Rather than imposing restrictions on interaction between politicians and bureaucrats, the DPJ’s plan will ensure that bureaucrats see a lot more of politicians — in their own ministries. There is already little love lost between the DPJ and the bureaucracy, and the DPJ’s new plan will do nothing to endear it to Kasumigaseki.

The party’s administrative reform investigatory committee, chaired by Matsumoto Takeaki (49), an HR member representing the Kinki PR bloc, has announced that when the DPJ takes power, it will greatly expand the number of political appointees in the government. There are currently around seventy appointees to ministerial, vice-ministerial, secretarial, and advisory posts in cabinet ministries and the cabinet secretariat. The DPJ wants to expand that number to around 130, tapping Diet members (and experts from outside the Diet) to serve as advisers to cabinet ministers. And it doesn’t just want to create new figurehead positions: the DPJ intends to give the political appointees control over bureaus and policy formulation. The plan also calls for the creation of a centralized bureau of cabinet personnel in the cabinet secretariat, and forbids ministries and agencies from finding new employment for retiring bureaucrats.

The further down into the ministries that the reach of the politicians extends, the more power the government will have to impose its will on the bureaucrats. But the politicians need operational control. Does the DPJ have enough policy experts in its ranks to dispatch them into ministries to battle day-to-day with bureaucrats? A massive influx of advisers long on titles and short on power will not change the situation. So I’m skeptical about whether the DPJ will be able to implement this broad-ranging plan. This shows, however, that a DPJ government would be free to consider radical reforms that the LDP cannot, thanks to its cozy relationship with the bureaucracy.

Administrative reform is not just something that concerns insiders in Tokyo. The people are paying attention. Note that in the Mainichi poll conducted before the Yamaguchi-2 by-election, administrative reform ranked third in order of priority, after health and welfare, and pensions. The public knows who is responsible for misgoverning Japan, and the DPJ is wise to discuss how a DPJ government will deal with the bureaucracy.

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