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Editorial: Special Diet session highlights the hollowing out of the legislative branch

This autumn's special Diet session, which was called following the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election, effectively ends on Dec. 8, though it officially closes the following day, a Saturday. The session hardly fulfilled its role of scrutinizing policy measures that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's fourth administration plans to implement. Nor did it get to the bottom of favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution.

This was the first full-scale Diet debate since the June end of this year's regular session. In late September, an extraordinary session was convened, but it lasted only long enough for the prime minister to dissolve the lower chamber for the general election.

Prime Minister Abe's policy speech at the special session only summarized the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s election campaign pledges, and was far from substantive.

The Abe government also attempted an evasive maneuver right after the election, proposing to open and then quite quickly close the special autumn Diet session once Abe had been re-elected prime minister by the lower chamber, without allotting time for a question-and-answer period. In the end, the prime minister attended both chambers' plenary sessions for four days, and budget committee sessions for another four days.

Though it complied with opposition party demands for full-scale deliberations, the ruling bloc took advantage of their majority in both houses to slash the time for questions allotted to opposition lawmakers. The governing coalition apparently surmised that the prime minister wanted to avoid a Diet grilling.

In the regular session, Prime Minister Abe defended as "appropriate" the Finance Ministry's decision to slash the price of a piece of state-owned land by some 800 million yen when the lot was sold to Moritomo Gakuen. Even though the Board of Audit of Japan compiled a report stating that the discount was inappropriate, the prime minister has refused to probe the process leading up to the decision.

It is obvious that the ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau gave special treatment to Moritomo Gakuen. Questions remain as to why the bureau needed to do the private school operator an 800-million-yen favor. If the executive branch believed that its insistence that "there was no price negotiation even though we talked about the amount of money" could convince legislators and the public, the administration would be making light of the Diet.

The ruling bloc refused to comply with opposition camp demands that Nobuhisa Sagawa, former director general of the ministry's Financial Bureau, and the prime minister's wife Akie Abe, be summoned as unsworn witnesses to testify before the Diet over the Moritomo scandal.

Sagawa's past statements at the Diet justifying the discount are far from reasonable. Many taxpayers are unimpressed that such a person now heads the National Tax Agency. The prime minister's statement in the Diet that Sagawa is the right person to serve as head of the agency is also surprising.

Some have said that the Diet has been hollowed out. Under the parliamentary Cabinet system, a Diet in which the ruling bloc has a majority tends to act like a subcontractor, simply tasked with passing government-sponsored bills. In his policy speech at the special session, Prime Minister Abe called on opposition parties to have constructive discussions. However, it is the government and ruling coalition that have refused to hold such debate.

The ruling coalition seems to believe that it does not have to explain its policies in the Diet once it has won an election, and this attitude has contributed to the hollowing out of the legislative branch. If the current situation continues, concerns remain about next year's regular Diet session.

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