Slowing down the rat race of private members bills

Every so often, someone accuses our Knesset members of submitting an excessive number of private members’ bills.

Avishay Braverman 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avishay Braverman 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Every so often, someone accuses our Knesset members of submitting an excessive number of private members’ bills . This time, the one pointing the accusing finger is MK Avishay Braverman (Labor), who has called the phenomenon a “rat race.”
According to Braverman, the competition among MKs to submit the largest number of private members’ bills on any conceivable topic, no matter how trivial, in order to gain the title “outstanding MK,” is wasteful and does not contribute to the quality of the Knesset’s work or the interests of the State of Israel.
“I personally plan to struggle for a limited number of important bills, and to spend the rest of my time overseeing the Executive Branch or working in the Knesset committees,” he recently stated. Since Braverman has been selected to head the Knesset Economics Committee in the 19th Knesset, he shouldn’t have any difficulty fulfilling his plans.
On average, over 1,000 private members’ bills are submitted every annual session of the Knesset. Unlike government bills, which the government submits on the basis of government policy, private members’ bills are submitted by ordinary Knesset members, on a haphazard collection of issues.
In presidential systems, all bills are submitted by members of parliament (or, in the case of the US, by congressmen). In parliamentary systems, most legislation is submitted by the government, though back-benchers have the right to submit bills as well.
Israel is the only parliamentary democracy in the world in which around half the legislation passed originates in private members’ bills. Of the private members’ bills submitted, only 20 percent reach preliminary reading, and only around 5% actually get through their third readings and enter the law book.
However, since the government frequently objects to the content of these laws, it has devised various tricks to avoid implementing them, such as “forgetting” to issue the necessary regulations, or taking advantage of the infamous Economic Arrangements Law – a massive omnibus law passed simultaneously with the budget, which amends existing legislation as required for implementing the budget and the government’s economic policy, and which the Finance Ministry uses to delay the implementation of “bothersome” laws.
It should be noted that not all the private members’ bills are trivial, and some important legislation originated in such bills, including a good deal of social welfare legislation and laws dealing with environmental issues (in the latter, Hadash MK Dov Henin excels).
There are, however, numerous problems with the phenomenon. The first is that even bills that do not reach preliminary reading (either because of parliamentary group quotas, or because their content is problematic) require an investment of time on the part of the Knesset legal department, which must review them, and the Knesset presidium to which they are brought for approval before being laid on the Knesset table. After the presidium approves them (20% of those submitted), they go to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, in which the government decides whether to support them. This again consumes a good deal of precious time.
The second major problem is that due to the haphazard selection of topics, they do not always tally with government policy, and frequently even contradict it. Though the Knesset passed a law in 2003 stating that any bill whose implementation is liable to cost more than NIS 5 million a year and is not approved by the government must be supported by at least 50 MKs in each of the four readings, the financial burden of this legislation is vast, and comes at the expense of other items in the budget.
Why did this phenomenon start to develop in the late 1980s? There are many reasons.
One is the introduction of primaries in several major parties, which resulted in MKs seeking to demonstrate their productivity, inter alia by proving their effectiveness as legislators.
Another is the growing incoherence of our government coalitions, which has made it increasingly difficult for ministers to pass laws in which they are interested, and as a result they frequently prefer to try to get them through as private members’ bills.
A third is the growing power of lobbyists, working on behalf of powerful business concerns that desire to have legislation introduced that will advance their interests. In fact, lobbyists are the source of quite a few bills that are then submitted as private members’ bills.
If the phenomenon is so problematic, why isn’t anything being done to effectively limit its dimensions? The main reason is that most MKs believe legislation is one of the main elements of their job, and trying to curtail this activity would be tantamount to landing a blow on their basic rights and on the democratic system as a whole. Former MK Anat Maor is one of the most prominent spokespeople against meddling with private members’ bills, and published a book (her doctorate) on the subject several years ago.
Another reason is that the issue constitutes part of an ongoing and unresolved power struggle between the Knesset and the government.
In fact, the only serious effort to address the issue took place toward the end of the 17th Knesset, when then-cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel and Knesset secretary-general Eyal Yinon held a dialogue in which MKs, ministers, and senior civil servants and Knesset employees participated, on the issue of improving the mutual relations between the government and the Knesset. They submitted their recommendations to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik in February 2009.
One of their recommendations was that the government and Knesset should reach a package agreement that would include the following elements: reducing the number of private members’ bills, and enhancing cooperation between MKs and the government in their preparation; limiting the size and extent of the Economic Arrangements Law to the absolute minimum required to implement the budget; and having the Knesset undertake to avoid slowing down or blocking the treatment of government bills that the government considers of special importance, as well as setting timetables for their approval so the government would no longer have an excuse to try and get them through by means of the Economic Arrangements Law.
These recommendations came to naught, due to the 18th Knesset elections and the fact that the new government formed in their aftermath was apparently not interested in pursuing the issue.
Perhaps these recommendations should be examined again. I am sure that Braverman and other MKs who are as concerned as he is will find in them some good ideas on how to cut down the number of private members’ bills, and generally improve the effectiveness of the Knesset’s work.The writer is a retired Knesset employee.