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Editorial: Diet is now Cabinet's subcontractor; reform vital to strengthen gov't supervision

"Has the Diet carried out lawmaking and administrative oversight activities that are fully reflective of the trust extended by the Japanese people?" asked House of Representatives Speaker Tadamori Oshima in July in a rare statement, when the ordinary session of the Diet entered into a recess.

In the statement, Oshima, who heads one of the three branches of the government, also strongly urged the administrative branch to reflect seriously on its actions over a series of problems committed by government departments, such as the Finance Ministry's doctoring of official documents. Oshima's question indicates his sense of crisis about the failure of ruling and opposition lawmakers to handle those problems properly.

The statement, however, clearly did not have any substantial effect on the legislators. This is indicated by the railroading by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and its junior coalition partner Komeito of legal revisions to accept more foreign workers, with little deliberation.

One has no choice but to say that the hollowing out of the Diet has advanced further during the past year.

In February 2017, the favoritism allegations involving Osaka educational institute Moritomo Gakuen came to the surface. The western Japan operator that once boasted of close ties with Prime Minister Abe's wife Akie, bought a patch of land in Osaka Prefecture at a massively discounted rate from the Ministry of Finance. Favoritism on the part of the ministry was suspected but Abe and the ministry adamantly denied the allegation. Then in March this year, the Finance Ministry acknowledged that its officials doctored internal official documents linked to the land deal, including the deletion of portions referring to the names of Abe and Akie.

This means that during the 13-month period, the Diet discussed the Moritomo issue based on doctored records, and the lower house elections were carried out in the fall of 2017.

The Finance Ministry has since compiled a report on the doctoring, and opposition lawmakers pursued the case in the Diet. But the core questions of why the discount was made and why the officials doctored the documents remain unanswered.

Taro Aso, who heads the Ministry of Finance, has continued to serve at the helm of the ministry, and the premier has failed to provide a convincing explanation about the case, repeating the same statement that he and his wife had nothing to do with the case.

In other words, this development has shed light on the weakness of both houses of the Diet to investigate national political affairs although this right is stipulated by the Constitution.

The Constitution, which provides for the Diet as the "highest organ of state power," is based on the order and principle of the division of power among three government branches of legislature, administration and judiciary. This division ensures checks and balances among the three branches, and thus prevents the abuse of power and guarantees the rights and freedoms of the people of Japan.

Under the dominant rule of Prime Minister Abe, however, the power of the Cabinet stands out in a distorted manner, rendering the Diet as a subcontractor to the Cabinet.

In this whole affair, Prime Minister Abe, who makes light of the Diet, should bear the most serious responsibility. At the same time, under our parliamentary system, the ruling party also bears responsibility for not only supporting the Cabinet but also monitoring and checking its behavior. One has to wonder if LDP legislators have thrown away their pride as representatives of the people.

In the LDP presidential election in September, Prime Minister Abe won his third consecutive term, and the second Abe administration has already entered its seventh year. The party leadership race showed that Abe's contender, Shigeru Ishiba, won some 45 percent of party member votes, indicating strong frustration held by regional party officials toward Abe. Yet the premier does not seem to take the warning seriously, and his party members remain mum on his problems.

When it comes to Diet deliberations, the ruling party demanded that more time be allocated to questioning. But the same party gave up some of the questioning time saved for the ruling camp during the House of Councillors deliberations on the revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act for the further opening up of the country's labor market to foreigners. The LDP did so because the party wanted the changes to pass the Diet early, but this action clearly contradicts its earlier demand for more question time.

--- Preliminary probe should be utilized

There are ways to change this situation. One method is utilizing the "preliminary research" authority given to lower house lawmakers by a 1997 revision to the chamber's rules. A group of 40 or more legislators can demand government ministries and agencies to cooperate over their studies, such as supplying them with documents. This can be a useful method to check on the administrative branch at a time when questioning under oath of witnesses cannot take place without the approval of the ruling camp.

This authority has been rarely used in recent years, according to experts, because the power to seek cooperation based on this provision is weak, and it can only be used for cases beside those under criminal prosecution. The citing of criminal prosecution in refusing to answer questions in the Diet is a tactic used by former National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa during his Diet testimony over the Moritomo case in March 2018.

But the roles of the Diet and the judiciary are different. Considering this difference, the preliminary research authority should be used with more flexibility, changing relevant rules if necessary. In a bid to give substance to the research, both the ruling and opposition camps should publish reports about their research activities.

Moreover, eliminating the preliminary screening of government-submitted bills should receive serious consideration as it did during the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The preliminary screening allows the government and the ruling camp to reach a compromise on a bill before its submission to the Diet. Once it is submitted, it is passed by the ruling camp without revision. It's been some time since the screening was criticized as rendering the Diet into a mere body to approve a bill without discussions.

Making adjustments to a bill behind closed doors is less helpful than questioning the government over the bill in the Diet for voters to understand what is the point. If the LDP wants to increase the question time in the national legislature, the ruling party has more reason to stop the preliminary screening.

Shinjiro Koizumi, a popular lawmaker of the LDP, called the falsification of public documents by Finance Ministry officials a "major incident that will be recorded in the political annals of the Heisei era." The seriousness of the incident is also reflected in the Diet's inability to handle the case properly. All political parties should reform the Diet before the Heisei era comes to an end in April next year.

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