Tuesday, April 16, 2013

About That Revolution You Are Fearing

The insurgency began
And you missed it...
- REM, Begin the Begin (1986)
On April March 15, this summer's House of Councillors election became irrelevant. On that Friday, the House of Councillors approved, with coalitions shifting on every vote, the appointments of Kuroda Haruhiko as Governor of the Bank of Japan and Iwata Kikuo and Nakaso Hiroshi as deputy governors.

With these nods, the House of Councillors ceased to have a part to play in governing Japan. High appointments are the only matters requiring the approval of both Houses of the Diet. All other governance issues can pass into law via the supermajority the ruling Liberal Democratic Party/New Komeito coalition holds in the House of Representatives.

The only function the House of Councillors now serves is as a brake upon constitutional revision. The LDP and the Japan Restoration Association will be campaigning hard on the issue of revision in July. However, it is impossible for the two parties to win the necessary 2/3rds of the seats in the House of Councillors.

The existing state of legislative tyranny creates the conditions for some strange requests. Last week, Prime Minister Abe had a meeting with Osaka City mayor and JRA co-leader Hashimoto Toru at the Prime Minister’s Residence. In the course of the meeting, the prime minister asked Hashimoto for JRA support of the government’s budget, stating:

"If the JRA supports the budget bill, we will earn the public’s approval, even if the bill is rejected by the House of Councillors and has to be passed using the override."

(Link - J video)

Put into less convoluted terms, the prime minister's request reads, "We are going to pass the budget using our 2/3rds majority in the House of Representatives if the House of Councillors rejects it. Can you provide the political cover for our steamrolling of the legislation?"

What is the really weird part about Abe's gambit? Not that Abe is asking the Hashist to provide a fig leaf for the ruling coalition's naked use of power. No, what is weird is that under Article 60 of the Constitution, the passage of a budget does not require an override – the budget becomes law effective 30 days after the House of Representatives gives its approval, no matter what.

True, Abe could be talking about the full package of the budget and its enabling legislation, particularly the bond issuance bills to which Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers Kan Naoto and Noda Yoshihiko both had to sacrifice their premierships. Passing the enabling legislation will require the approval of both Houses, and barring the approval of the House of Councillors, the use of the 2/3rds override majority in the House of Representatives.

Of course, that Abe even asked Hashimoto for cover reveals an interesting lack of self-confidence on the part of the prime minister and his party. This could be because the use of the override is constitutionally suspect, the product of the LDP's and the New Komeito's margin of victory in the tainted December 2012 election.

However, reticence toward use of the override extends back before the courts made clear their disgust with the inequalities of the House of Representatives voting districts. Back in 2007-08, prime minister Fukuda Yasuo and the LDP embarrassed themselves repeatedly by failing to use the override majority to keep vital pieces of legislation from becoming defunct.

Some have argued a cultural distaste for the bald use of constitutional powers. Such a proclivity may indeed exists.

A self-interest explanation for earlier restraint would be that the smart elements of the LDP sensed that the party could not use the override without triggering questions about the legitimacy of House of Representatives elections. Had earlier LDP governments used supermajorities again and again to railroad controversial or blatantly self-serving legislation through the Diet, the courts might have stepped in earlier to rectify imbalances in the sizes of the districts -- something the LDP really wanted to avoid.

Later - Thanks to reader PW for alerting me to the error in the first line.

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