The Yomiuri Shimbun (Jul. 11, 2010)
Voters cast ballots Sunday in the House of Councillors election.
Most major parties proposed in their campaign platforms that the number of lawmakers be reduced, a proposal that strongly smacks of populism. But the more substantial issue of the role of the upper house was hardly discussed.
Once considered "the chamber of wisdom," the upper house is now dubbed "the chamber of political maneuvers" because it has become a venue for power struggles between parties. Originally, the upper house was expected to have "restraining" and "supplementary" functions in relation to the House of Representatives. But we have witnessed in recent years confusion arising from interparty confrontation in the upper chamber just as is seen in the lower house.
Since the Liberal Democratic Party's major setback in the 1989 upper house election, no single party has secured a majority in the chamber, causing political instability. To control the upper house, it has become a common practice since the late 1990s to form a coalition government.
A divided Diet from 2007 to 2009 resulted in dysfunctional politics as we continually witnessed needless confrontation over such matters as the appointment of the Bank of Japan governor and the extension of the provisionally higher gasoline tax rate.
Reform of the upper house is not a new issue. It has been nearly 40 years since Kenzo Kono, who held the post of upper house president, raised the issue in 1971, saying, "The upper house is now merely a carbon copy of the lower house."
Since then, a variety of reform plans have been floated, such as one that would drop the requirement for party members to vote along party lines and another under which upper house members would be elected through a new regional representation system.
In an attempt to make the upper house "the chamber of reconsideration," a panel of experts suggested in a report it compiled in 2000 that the chamber be stripped of the right to vote for the nomination of prime minister and that its functions to monitor administrative affairs be strengthened. But these proposals failed to take form.
Only some changes have been implemented. For example, an electronic push-button voting system was introduced, and budget auditing processes were improved and expedited.
Given that the lower house has final say in budget deliberations, it is not a bad idea to let the upper house focus on budget auditing and ensuring that audit results are reflected in budget compilation.
End duplication of functions
If the upper house continues to claim "distinctive" roles for itself but only repeats deliberations held in the lower house, it will ignite stronger calls to eliminate it because it is unnecessary. The roles of the upper house must be distinguished from those of the lower house.
For example, the upper house could be stripped of its right to vote to appoint prime ministers. Also, legislation from the lower house that is rejected by the upper house currently becomes law only if it receives a two-thirds majority in a revote in the lower house; this requirement could also be eased.
But at the same time, the power of the upper house to audit budgets should be enhanced, and the upper chamber should be given the right to first deliberate legislation in certain areas. Considering which powers should be curtailed or expanded could lead to a new shape of the upper house.
Little progress would be made if the upper house were left to itself to reduce its own powers. To come up with concrete measures to this end, it would be appropriate to appoint a deliberative panel that includes third-party members.
In doing so, it is imperative to separate mid- to long-term issues, which would require constitutional revisions such as easing the requirement for revoting, from others that could be handled only through revisions of laws.
Ruling and opposition parties intend to review proposed changes to the election system to be applied from the next upper house election in 2013 to correct the disparity in the value of votes. How the upper house should function is linked to its election system. Deep and comprehensive discussions are called for in this regard.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2010)