The DPJ's quiet revolution

In a contribution to Foreign Policy's "Think Again" feature, Paul Scalise and Devin Stewart maintain that the DPJ victory will result in "the same old stagnation in Tokyo." While there are points worth considering in their piece — especially on foreign policy and the notion that the DPJ is "anti-capitalist" — on the whole Scalise and Stewart, far from offering new thinking about the DPJ, offer the same old cliches about the DPJ's policy priorities and its internal dynamics. [For the record, I know them both — indeed, Scalise and I have argued many of these points in person.]

First, they argue DPJ politicians are not revolutionary: "Like those of the long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), they are political opportunists without any long-standing ideological position or dominant constituency. Their only common desire is to be elected." They repeat the standard claim that "many members of the DPJ leadership were at one point members of the LDP," implying that the presence of former LDP members in the DPJ means that the party couldn't possibly stand for change. (Because apparently the most important fact about Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama, among others, is that they began their careers in the LDP, not that they spent nearly the past two decades trying to destroy LDP rule and usher in a new style of politics.)

This argument also ignores the fact that the party's candidates were remarkably unified behind the DPJ's manifesto during the general election. Far from being "political opportunists," the bulk of the DPJ's newly elected members are true believers in the party's agenda, which can be simplified as "Seikatsu dai-ichi" (Livelihoods first, i.e. pensions reform, building a new safety net, etc.) and "Seiken kotai" (regime change, mainly changing the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats in Tokyo, decentralizing the government, etc.). The point is that the DPJ has a remarkably clear agenda, which enjoys the support of the party's Diet members. Indeed, as Michael Cucek, the no longer anonymous author of Shisaku, worried before the election, the problem may be that the party members are too loyal to the agenda and not opportunistic enough. The opinions of DPJ backbenchers, however, may not matter much one way or another (more on this momentarily). The politicians in the cabinet — the DPJ politicians who do matter — are not mere opportunists, but they are not naive idealists either. The standard caricature of the DPJ and its leaders is simply wrong.

And in any case, the DPJ does not need to be "revolutionary" to deliver meaningful change to how Japan is governed.

Second, they express dismay that the DPJ is not the party of economic reform. Perhaps this is the case, although they make the same mistake that they criticize the media for making: they treat "economic reform" as an "empty buzzword," as nowhere in this section do they bother to define what they mean by economic reform. Surely there is no single way for Japan to reform, beyond the broad idea that Japan ought to transition to a more balanced model of economic growth, as I recently discussed here . There is not a single path to a new Japanese model, and as with any major institutional change, it will entail bargaining and compromises among various social actors.

Scalise and Stewart expect a new economic system to emerge in the manner similar to Junichiro Koizumi's style of reform: "Were the DPJ to change this system, it would need to bolster party unity, appeal to progressive constituencies with a transformative economic plan, and then gin up grass-roots support." One, as I have already noted, the DPJ is as unified as it is going to get, and is certainly more unified than the LDP probably ever was when it was in government. And in the event that DPJ backbenchers disagree with government plans, administrative changes already implemented will make it difficult for them to register their disagreement (see the subsequent section for more on this). Second, I'm not quite clear what they mean by "progressive constituencies." Consumer groups? Activist groups? Foreign investors? Who exactly do they mean?

Finally, they anticipate a lack of reform due to the structure of the DPJ — and its "bickering," "fragmented," "hodgepodge" coalition government indebted "to many masters" — and not, as I argued the other day, the fact that transforming an economic system is challenging in the best of times, and even more challenging in light of the LDP's having left the new government with a gross debt/GDP ratio now in excess of 200% and the global economy's recovering from a historic crisis. The obstacles facing the new government are without question considerable, but far from being hindered by a divided, bickering party and government, Hatoyama and his senior ministers have taken a number of steps that should give the DPJ-led government a fighting chance of succeeding in changing the Japanese economy for the better. The government may well fail, but it won't fail because of irreconcilable divisions within the cabinet. Indeed, what Scalise and Stewart see as "heated internal bickering" (a code word for Shizuka Kamei) I see as a massive step forward: note that the bickering is internal not to the ruling party or between ruling party and cabinet as under the LDP, the debate is occurring within the cabinet, among cabinet ministers. Cabinet ministers are actually debating what the government's policy should be! They're not just signing off on some document handed to them by administrative vice ministers or the party general council! What they see as bickering I see as a feature, not a bug. No government in the world — no democratic government anyway — is characterized by perfect unanimity among its leaders. The question is how the system manages disagreements and whether it is capable of making decisions and following through on them. The LDP system failed in large part because disagreements crossed institutional lines, undermining the cabinet's ability to establish policy priorities and lead.

Which brings me to the biggest flaw in their argument: they completely misunderstand the nature of the changes proposed by the DPJ when it comes to the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats. In describing the system of LDP rule, they see bureaucratic dominance as the result of the failings of Diet members, not the result of the institutional weakness of the cabinet relative to the LDP's internal organs (most notably the policy research council) and the bureaucracy itself: "...Politicians lack the time, energy, staff, and expertise necessary to write bills."

Undoubtedly individual backbenchers have had few resources of their own — but again, they ignore the power LDP backbenchers were able to wield as members of the PRC, working in cooperation with bureaucrats against the cabinet. But the answer to making Japan's government more effective is not strengthening the power and expertise of individual backbenchers. Indeed, the answer lies is ensuring that backbenchers have fewer avenues to exercise influence while concentrating all policymaking power in the cabinet.

Which is precisely what the DPJ plans to do. Scalise and Stewart don't seem to appreciate the significance of what the Hatoyama government has done in just the first few weeks of power: "The ruling party has called for the creation of a few smaller cabinet-focused committees to replace a few older party-centric and ministry-centric committees. It has also restricted the media's access to the bureaucracy -- hardly signaling its commitment to a more democratic and transparent legislative process."

What they miss here is just how powerful an actor the "party-centric" committees — the LDP's PRC — was in the policymaking process and how having powerful policymaking institutions outside the cabinet prevented it from controlling the policymaking process. And the idea that replacing bureaucratic press conferences with press conferences by political appointees is somehow undemocratic is laughable, and is indeed intended to ensure that the government's policy message is conveyed to the public clearly by the officials responsible for drafting it.

Scalise and Stewart simply miss the idea that the DPJ is trying to implement a Westminster system in Japan — and they simply miss just how radical an idea this is when one considers it in contrast to the LDP's "un-Westminster" system of government, in which the ruling party and its organs, together with the bureaucracy, had extensive veto power over the cabinet. The DPJ is trying to create a cabinet-led system of government that will be able to attempt some of the reforms desired by Scalise and Stewart, reforms that LDP-led cabinets struggled to maneuver through a cumbersome policymaking progress laden with veto points. At the very least the DPJ is creating a system of government that will be capable of experimentation and government by trial and error, which, after two lost decades, may be the only way for Japan to get a new economic system.

So what do we know about the DPJ's system of government so far?

Quite a lot, actually, because in its first days in office the Hatoyama government stated precisely how it plans to govern.

First, the DPJ as a ruling party is weak and — unlike the LDP — has no formal role in the policymaking process. The DPJ's policy research council has closed up shop; policy coordination will be managed by a national strategy bureau attached by the cabinet and headed by Naoto Kan, deputy prime minister and one of the DPJ's most senior politicians. Ozawa, the new DPJ secretary-general, has been given tremendous power over the ruling party and its Diet majority, making him the essential figure for getting the cabinet's policies passed into law.

Indeed, Ozawa will perform a function essential to a Westminster system: his job will be to ensure that the cabinet has the confidence of the ruling party, through which it controls parliament. Ozawa is hard at work on ensuring that backbenchers follow his lead, and by extension the lead of the cabinet. Far from strengthening the power of backbenchers, which Scalise and Stewart for some reason see as essential to changing how the government works, the DPJ intends to reform the system so that the job of a DPJ backbencher is to receive instructions on how to vote from Ozawa, show up to vote at the right time, and take the necessary steps to get reelected and so preserve the government's majority. Unlike under LDP rule, when backbenchers were busy with endless party committee and subcommittee meetings, participation in which being essential for getting ahead in the party, the cabinet and the party leadership expect that DPJ backbenchers will be seen and not heard.

To make this point absolutely clear, the DPJ has informed its Diet members that legislation introduced by Diet members (as opposed to legislation introduced by the cabinet) will be banned "in principle," with exceptions made for legislation related to elections and "political activities." (Presumably the latter exceptions will enable Ozawa to move legislation related to liberalizing campaign activities, long one of his pet issues and the subject of his recent study trip to Britain.) Also while in Britain Ozawa
studied
the daily activities of parliamentarians — in other words, what backbenchers do with their time since they have little to do when it comes to policymaking.

Beyond these changes, perhaps the biggest oversight on the part of Scalise and Stewart is their failure to appreciate the radicalism of the DPJ's changes to the budgeting process. As I argued before the general election, the DPJ's idea of "regime change" cannot be understood without looking at its plans for the budgeting process. In their plans to transfer budgetary authority to the cabinet — which, after all, is given budgetary authority by the constitution — the DPJ is positioning itself to deliver a democratic revolution in Japan by enabling political leaders to determine how the public's money is spent, and to redirect funds in the direction of policy priorities desired by voters.

The Hatoyama government has already taken the first steps towards a new budgeting process. Just as it said it would, on Tuesday the cabinet approved a cabinet decision that canceled the Aso government's budgetary guidelines, instructed cabinet ministers to establish budget priorities from a "zero base" and to make substantial cuts to the extent possible, and stressed once again (as the DPJ did in its manifesto) that the government will be redoing the budget from scratch. It will not simply make incremental adjustments to last year's budget. At the same time, under the leadership of Motohisa Furukawa, deputy minister for the new national strategy office and the administrative renovation council, the Hatoyama government will devise a framework for next year's outlook for tax revenues and bond issues, a job in recent years done by the Council on Fiscal and Economic Policy (replaced by the NSO), but, as Asahi notes, "The finance ministry decided the specific size of the budget." The NSO will be taking the lead in all facets of the budgeting process. We will know more about the new budgeting process after 15 October, the new deadline for ministries to submit requests to the cabinet.

There are plenty of questions about how the NSO, the new budgetary process, and the new policymaking process more generally will work, but Scalise and Stewart miss several key points that suggest not only does the new government have radical ideas for the policymaking process, but also will likely succeed in making the government more top-down, more cabinet-centered, and more streamlined than any of its predecessors: (1) the Hatoyama government has clear ideas for how it wants to change the system of government (indeed clearer ideas here than in any other policy area), (2) relatedly, its members have spent years studying the LDP's failures, the failures of the Hosokawa government (in which several Hatoyama cabinet members participated, including Hatoyama himself), and of course the British system, (3) there is more public support on this issue than any other, as public opinion polls have shown overwhelming support for the DPJ's plans to redraw the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats, especially concerning budgeting, and (4) the bureaucracy is not nearly as opposed to the DPJ's plans as one might expect. Kan, for example, has been reaching out to reformist bureaucrats. The finance ministry, far from standing in the new government's way, accommodated the DPJ's request to hold off on budgeting for 2010 despite the ministry's desire to stick to the customary schedule. Spending ministries, the targets of the DPJ's desire to cut waste, have softened their once vocal opposition to the new government. They may yet attempt to derail the government through sabotage or foot-dragging, but there are enough reports out there of bureaucrats eager for political leadership to suggest that it is far too early to write off the DPJ's administrative reforms as doomed.

In short, the changes set in motion by the Hatoyama government will likely result in a stronger cabinet actually capable of leading Japan, and by leading I mean making difficult decisions instead of punting on every decision as the LDP did when in power. A new policymaking process is no guarantee of success, but the Hatoyama government is taking the right steps to give it a chance to change Japan for the better. It may not look like much of a revolution, but a quiet revolution is still a revolution.


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