Critical Currents: Opportunistic reforms

Patently lacking is any systematic effort to improve the performance of the Knesset as an institution

1505-chazan (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
An entire series of institutional changes carried out under the guise of governmental reform have gotten lost behind blaring headlines that have dealt with everything from the Barack Obama-Binyamin Netanyahu meeting, the Iranian nuclear program, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's European foray and the budget to Bank Hapoalim and the swine flu. The cumulative impact of these initiatives - conducted far from the limelight and for all the wrong reasons - is to derail the possibility of a sorely needed, comprehensive structural overhaul anytime in the near future. Netanyahu, who came into office waving the flag of governmental reform, sacrificed this principle on the altar of coalition agreements. This does not mean, however, that he has not engineered several changes that make a mockery of institutional structural adjustment - something he would never countenance in the economic sphere. The source of these decisions is the need to enable the coalition to function while keeping its 74 members happy. This is the prime motive for reducing the size of Knesset committees, legislating an increase in the number of deputy speakers, creating three new ministries and splitting several others, introducing a two-year budget and proposing a bill that will allow deputy ministers to vote in committees. The present government, the 32nd in the country's 61 years, is also its largest. With 30 ministers and nine deputy ministers, it accounts for one-third of the members of our already diminutive parliament. Without making some basic changes, the diluted number of full-time coalition Knesset members could hardly be expected to manage the task of overseeing the daily operations of the house. Realistically, not counting the Speaker of the Knesset, the Likud has only seven parliamentarians, Israel Beiteinu eight, Habayit Hayehudi two, United Torah Judaism three, Shas six and Labor only one that it can count on. These 27 (mostly neophyte) Knesset members are hardly a match for the Kadima-led opposition, which formally numbers 46 members from six parties and can rally periodic support from the five Labor Party renegades. These 51 members of Knesset have no other distractions: They can make the government's life miserable, not only blocking its initiatives and by proposing legislation that contradicts its guidelines, but also by relentlessly pummeling its leaders. THE NEW GOVERNMENT has had few qualms in making adjustments to suit its immediate needs, even though the problem of legislative operations is familiar here, as in other parliamentary democracies. The most obvious step would have been to adopt the package of recommendations on governmental reform proposed by the Presidential Commission on the Structure of Government headed by Prof. Menahem Magidor, most of which were discussed extensively by the Constitution, Legislation and Law Committee of the outgoing Knesset and are ready for a first reading. But there was too much resistance within the coalition to the most important component - increasing the number of active parliamentarians through the adoption of the so-called Norwegian law, which provides for replacing ministers with alternative Knesset members who would enable the smooth functioning of the legislature. The abandonment of this reasonable, and stabilizing, tool has meant that a patchwork of woefully partial substitutes has been enacted, the most notable being the downsizing of parliamentary committees. This change is, in fact, long overdue. Each committee, by law, can consist of up to 15 members (17 in the Foreign Affairs and Defense and the Finance committees). The result has been that Knesset members, especially from the coalition, have found themselves on anywhere between four and eight committees, at best somehow managing to hop from room to room for deliberations taking place at precisely the same time. Even the most experienced parliamentarian can't do any serious work under such circumstances. The way the number of members in the various committees was cut last week, however, cannot but cause grave discomfort. The two most prestigious, and largest, committees were not touched, as membership in these forums is highly valued. The other 10 standing committees were reduced by anywhere between two and six seats, saving 30 places (membership in the four reconstituted ad hoc committees was slashed by 32 additional seats). Needless to say, this move - whose exact details could not be found anywhere in the press or on the Knesset Web site and had to be obtained from a series of conversations with Knesset insiders - heavily favors the coalition and purposefully undercuts the opposition. More seriously, it contributes little to the smooth functioning of parliamentary life if unaccompanied by a simultaneous reorganization of the Knesset committee structure and a reduction in their overall number. This was not even ventured for fear of eliminating 16 committee chair positions left to placate the remaining Knesset members. The desire to endow each coalition member with some title also explains the unusual decision to amend the Basic Law: The Knesset to expand the presidium - consisting of the Speaker and his deputies - from eight to 10. There is now nary a member of one of the coalition parties who does not boast several seemingly exalting (and mostly meaningless) titles. When combined with the 58 (!) "caucuses" that members of the Knesset have established to promote pet causes (ranging from at least four environmental caucuses, two for relations with Christian groups, two dealing with transportation and several promoting women and youth, as well as at least 10 devoted to topics already covered by formal committees), opportunities for self-aggrandizement abound. What is patently lacking is any systematic effort to improve the supervisory, legislative and deliberative performance of the Knesset as an institution. THESE CHANGES come on top of the unprecedented decision to pass a two-year budget, which, although ill conceived on substantive grounds in an era of economic uncertainty, does provide the Netanyahu government with an important cushion against a budget-related motion of no-confidence. If the Knesset's power of the purse is curtailed in the process, so be it. All told, this and other steps add up to an opportunistic tampering with the parliamentary order which undermines Knesset capacities, unfairly constrains the opposition, upsets institutional checks and balances and increases the arbitrary character of politics in the country. When the impetus for governmental reform is to ease the work of the ruling coalition and reward its faithful, the outcome for the system as a whole is anything but reassuring. Israel needs governmental reform. The operations of the Knesset are ripe for serious review. But this cannot be carried out in a piecemeal manner or under pressure. The recent uncoordinated changes for immediate gain are already backfiring. Any further manipulation of the structures of government for self-serving purposes - even if seemingly salubrious - wreaks havoc with what is in any event a weak, fragile and increasingly ineffective democratic system that calls out for a coordinated structural revamping that will enhance both coalition and opposition efforts for the common good.