Critical Currents: Bloated gov't, anorexic Knesset

While the press lampoons the bloated cabinet, little attention is paid to a weak parliament.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The gargantuan size of the incoming Olmert government has been mercilessly, yet justifiably, criticized by the public, by the press, and even by many politicians. At the same time, little or no attention has been paid to the diminutive size of the Knesset. Even if the number of ministers were heavily slashed (and with them their bureaus, consultants, spokespeople, assistants, secretaries and drivers), no real remedy to Israel's democratic quandary can be found without significantly enlarging the legislative branch and substantially augmenting its powers. Israel boasts one of the smallest and weakest parliaments in the world. The system is exceedingly top-heavy - as many have painstakingly pointed out in the midst of the personally acrimonious and inherently greedy coalition construction process. With close to one quarter of the members of the Knesset slated for executive office, and another one third destined for parliamentary positions amidst intense internal jostling (committee and subcommittee chairs, faction heads, party whips, deputy speakers), scarcely half of the 120 Knesset members elected barely a month ago are actually available to carry out essential legislative functions. Reducing the size of the cabinet, although crucial for streamlining the executive and improving its efficiency, scarcely addresses the fundamental problem of the totally - some would say criminally - inadequate size of the Knesset. The number of Knesset members was set immediately after independence, when the population of the country was approximately 700,000. At the time, this seemed an appropriate number for a small and cohesive community. Today, almost 58 years later, the number of citizens has increased tenfold; their diversity is immense. Yet the size of the Knesset remains unaltered. Of the 28 leading democracies in the world, only one has a smaller parliament: Iceland with its population of 300,000. New Zealand, like Israel, has 120 members; but its population barely reaches four million. Smaller countries than Israel, with far thinner and less complicated agendas, have notably larger national assemblies (Denmark, 179; Norway, 165; Slovakia, 150; Finland, 200). Some of these have two houses: Ireland (166 in the lower house, 60 in the senate) and Switzerland (200 in parliament, 46 in the upper house). Most countries have much larger representative assemblies (led by the United Kingdom with 646, Italy with 630, Germany with 603, France with 577, and India with 545). All of these, like most other democracies, also have a second chamber. THE COMPARATIVE size of legislatures, especially in parliamentary democracies, is not an arbitrary matter. It reflects the importance imputed to parliaments in these countries and the significance attributed to the multiple tasks their members are expected to perform. If Israel wants to nurture a truly vibrant democratic culture, it must increase the size of the Knesset. Assuming that it would be difficult (if not inadvisable) to establish an upper house in the foreseeable future, ideally, the number of Knesset members should be doubled. Realistically, at the first stage, it is not too far-fetched to raise the number to 180. At the same time, it is necessary to augment parliamentary powers. The Knesset is the most important institutional check on the government, yet it is poorly equipped to fulfill its supervisory tasks. Systemic oversight means enabling the Knesset to summon bureaucrats, vet nominees and hold hearings. It also requires bolstering its autonomous information gathering and evaluation capacities. To improve the performance of both the government and the parliament, it is also necessary to clarify the functional division of powers between the two. The parliament is charged, along with supervisory functions, with legislative, deliberative, and representational powers. The executive branch should focus on policymaking and implementation, while scrupulously avoiding any intervention in, or usurpation of, the work of the Knesset (as in the annual legislative bypass ritual of the Appropriations Law). The same maxim holds for Knesset members: they should leave investigative and policymaking initiatives to ministers and civil servants, while concentrating on the tasks at hand. A more precise separation of powers can do wonders for government stability. The reluctance of the public to entertain the beginning of the much-needed fortification and enlargement of the Knesset - via what is commonly if erroneously dubbed the Norwegian law, which would allow ministers to resign temporarily from the Knesset and be replaced by the next in line - makes the prospects for effective government seem extremely remote. The argument against such a move, fueled by a persistent media barrage, is nothing short of populist demagoguery. Knesset members are not - with very few exceptions indeed - lazy and avaricious parasites. The vast majority are hardworking and committed. But even if they were almost superhuman multitaskers, they could not attend three committee meetings at the same time, or perform constituency chores while putting in tens of hours a week in the plenum. Today's serious Knesset members are simply swamped. Surely paying the salaries of a few more legislators is far preferable to living with their ineffectiveness. Democracy costs money. Other democratic countries are willing to make this investment. It is high time for Israel to follow suit. The cost of a robust and stable democracy is much cheaper than dealing with the consequences of its failure.