Think About It: The job of the MK

Even if MPs have never seen a systematic definition of their job, experience counts for a lot – both on the government and the opposition benches – for the proper functioning of a parliament.

By
April 28, 2019 22:04
Likud Knesset members celebrate with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife after the elections.

Likud Knesset members celebrate with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife after the elections.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In 1996, I was involved in preparing the basic texts for the newly constructed Knesset website.

In the section dealing with Knesset members, I wrote half a page on “the job of the MK,” based on the functions of Knesset which the members perform. When then-Knesset secretary-general Shmuel Jakobson read the text he commented that since there was no definition of the job of the Knesset member in the Knesset Rules of Procedure, or in any law, the Knesset website cannot include such a definition.

My first reaction was that this must be another of the peculiarities of the Knesset, but soon discovered that the job of Members of Parliament (or Congressmen) is not defined in any of the world’s democratic parliaments. The reason is that in democracies, the mandate of the MP is considered to be a free mandate, meaning that MPs perform their jobs based on their own discretion, and that at election time the voters – to whom the MPs are accountable – decide whether they have done their jobs properly, and should be reelected. 

There are several faults with this concept. The first is that it is assumed the voters know what MPs are supposed to do, and are able to judge what they do objectively. The second is the assumption that the voters prefer honest, law-abiding, hard-working MPs to corrupt ones, who are not wary of breaking the law. The third applies in parliamentary democracies, such as Israel, where MKs are not directly elected, and are not necessarily placed on their parties’ lists because they perform their job as parliamentarians well.

In the case of Israel, I also discovered that many of the rights and duties of MKs are a function of their “performance of their job.” For example, the substantive immunity of MKs applies only to acts and oral expressions done or uttered in the course of performing their jobs. MKs are entitled to remuneration for expenses incurred in the course of performing their job. MKs can only employ parliamentary assistants at the Knesset’s expense to perform services connected to their jobs as MKs. How can all this be done if the job is not defined? The High Court of Justice has occasionally been called upon to deal with this dilemma.

In fact, defining the job of the MP is not an impossible task. There are certain functions over which there is no debate. Legislation, oversight of the executive, participating in the determination of the national agenda are classic examples. Then there are tasks connected with the representation of and assistance to electoral districts, sectors and individual voters. In all parliaments MPs also play international, quasi-judicial, and legitimation roles (legitimation refers to acceptance of the rules of the political game.)

In the case of Israel, one cannot find any single source where the job of MKs is defined. However, most aspects of the job are described and defined piecemeal in scattered sources, such as the rulings of the High Court of Justice, in the Knesset Rules of Procedure, in both Basic Law and ordinary laws, in Knesset plenary and committee proceedings, in academic writings, and the decisions of legal advisers and other experts.

ONE CAN also find information on what is not included in the job. For example, according to article 7a of Basic Law the Knesset, a party or person who reject the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or which propagate racism cannot be elected to the Knesset, implying that promoting such views is not part of the MK’s job, even though not all of them are defined as punishable criminal offenses. Another example is reelection. There is a HCJ ruling from 2005 that says activities directly associated with reelection are not part of the job as such, though they are permitted.

For the last eight years I have been doing research on the subject of the MK’s job, and recently completed writing a book in Hebrew (to be translated later on into English) about it. The book, which will soon be launched, is being published by the Israel Democracy Institute. The fortuitous proximity of the publication to the recent election raises the question whether it has any special relevancy to the current political situation in Israel.

A first general comment is that very few MKs (or MPs for that matter) are familiar with their job in conceptual terms. Studies demonstrate that newly elected MPs all over the world are usually totally ignorant of what their new jobs entail, and learn what they are expected to do “on the job” – usually on the basis of what their parties expect of them rather than of what the proper functioning of the legislature in a democracy expects of them.

However, even if MPs have never seen a systematic definition of their job, experience counts for a lot – both on the government and the opposition benches – for the proper functioning of a parliament.

The problem with the newly elected Knesset is that there are over 50 new MKs. The fact that the Blue and White Party – most of whose elected MKs are complete novices, not only to the Knesset but to politics – decimated the Labor Party with its experienced list of candidates, means that just as in the 20th Knesset most of the new MKs were in the coalition, in the 21st Knesset, most of them will be in the opposition.

In a situation in which the coalition is likely to do its best to marginalize the opposition – whether by means of coalition voting discipline on many controversial issues that will come up for legislation (related to issues such as the prime minister’s possible indictment and the independence and effectiveness of the Supreme Court), or by means of the continued systematic delegitimization of all the components of the opposition by the prime minister himself and his supporters – an experienced opposition is vital, and its absence will certainly be felt.

But even if the opposition was made up of experienced MKs who were all proficient in the details of their jobs, the coalition must enable both the opposition MKs and coalition backbenchers to fulfill their jobs properly in order for the democratic system to thrive.

Unfortunately, already in the 20th Knesset, the Prime Minister and parts of his coalition showed their contempt for the opposition MKs and were willing to go to extreme lengths to preserve coalition discipline, especially when it came to the MKs’ oversight function. There is reason to believe that in this respect the situation in the 21st Knesset will only worsen, especially if Netanyahu’s indictment (after a hearing) will be put off by means of retroactive legislation until he is no longer prime minister.

A cynical colleague suggested that my book might no longer be relevant in the current political atmosphere. My reply was that while the 21st Knesset is unlikely to be a convenient platform for a renaissance of individual MK activity, or initiatives to formally define the MK’s job, my hope is that my book will at least give rise to some serious debate on the issue – both in academia and within the Knesset itself.


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