The DPJ will use administrative reform as a wedge issue

With the government’s having finally dispensed with the gasoline tax and road construction issues — for now — attention is now turning to other portions of the Fukuda agenda, such as it exists.

Item number one is the government’s — or perhaps more accurately, Administrative Reform Minister Watanabe Yoshimi’s — administrative reform plan (previously discussed here). When I last addressed the administrative reform bill at the beginning of May, the bill had yet to come under discussion in the Diet, with bureaucrats and LDP sympathizers unhappy with the bill.

Now, as of 9 May, the bill is under discussion in the House of Representatives. (The initial proceedings can be read at the National Diet Library site here.) The Fukuda government has decided to prioritize the bill. Prime Minister Fukuda, after a meeting Thursday with the Diet strategy chairmen of the LDP and Komeito, declared that he wants to “exert as much effort as possible” to see the bill passed during the remaining weeks of the current Diet session. It is not clear what “exert as much effort as possible” entails. Does he mean that the government will extend the Diet session to leave the government time to overrule the HC again in the event of DPJ opposition? I ruled out the possibility before, and it seems clear that the Fukuda government will not keep the Diet in session past mid-June. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Fukuda seems to recognize that freeing up Diet members to campaign in their districts is more important than keeping them in Tokyo to pass token (and watered down) pieces of legislation.

There may actually be some hope for the passage of the government’s administrative reform bill, as the DPJ is considering cooperating with the government to pass a revised version of the bill. According to Mainichi, the main points that the DPJ wants to strengthen are provisions related to transparency in politician-bureaucrat contacts and centralized management of the civil service. On the former point in particular, the DPJ wants every case of contact between politicians and bureaucrats reported to the appropriate cabinet minister.

The government, especially Mr. Watanabe, is receptive to the DPJ’s position. Nakagawa Hidenao, not in the government but certainly close to Mr. Fukuda, has also spoken favorably about LDP-DPJ cooperation on the administrative reform bill. In a post authored earlier this week titled “More than LDP v. DPJ, the important axis of confrontation is Kasumigaseki leadership v. political leadership,” Mr. Nakagawa argued that the government is fully committed to the plan, that it hasn’t been watered down from the initial conception of an advisory group to the prime minister, and that the LDP and DPJ must work together to contain the power of the bureaucracy, Mr. Fukuda’s “quiet reform.”

I still have my doubts about the strength of this bill, not least because as a basic law, it leaves too much detail about implementation unstated. And the DPJ is right to suggest that it doesn’t go far enough in curtailing contacts between politicians and bureaucrats. But there is some merit to the bill, not least because it will cause turmoil within the LDP.

The problem is that some (LDP) politicians cannot conceive of a system in which they don’t go to the bureaucrats whenever they need information. (Ed. — Or a favor…?)

Okashita Nobuko, an LDP member from Osaka, questioned Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Watanabe about the plan, stating her fear that “if Diet members cannot get essential information from bureaucrats, our activities as Diet members will be obstructed.”

Ms. Okashita seems to miss the point of administrative reform (or she gets it too well): it is not aimed solely at bureaucrats, but also at backbenchers who have abused the current system of lax regulation of contact between politicians and bureaucrats to distort policy. (See the case of the late Matsuoka Toshikatsu for a more blatant example.) Presumably restrictions on contact between politicians and bureaucrats will change how the LDP makes policy. The current system, under which the bureaucracy supplies LDP members with information at every stage of the policymaking process thanks to the shadow bureaucracy that is the LDP’s policy research system, presumably violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the current administrative reform bill. PARC therefore would have to become more like the British Conservative Party’s Research Department, and the party executive — and the prime minister’s office — would play an even greater role in establishing policy priorities.

Naturally there are more than a few LDP backbenchers who might be unhappy about this. The DPJ, lacking the dense contacts with the bureaucracy to begin with, has little reason to oppose greater restrictions.

By offering to cooperate, the DPJ is finally using administrative reform as a wedge issue, as the closer the bill gets to passage, the greater the pressure LDP backbenchers will put on the government to back away from the reform (or to make sotto voce promises to water it down in the implementation stage). Administrative reform has the potential to worsen the already strained relations between the Fukuda government and LDP members dependent on pork-barrel politics. In the process, the DPJ can claim that it is acting responsibly on an issue that concerns the public.

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