More of them?

One of the proposed solutions to improve the quality of the Knesset’s work is to increase the number of MKs from 120 to 180.

Knesset Empty BW 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Knesset Empty BW 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since its establishment in 1991, the Israel Democracy Institute, headed by Dr. Arik Carmon, has been pointing out the weaknesses of our democratic system and proposing ways of improving it.
Among its many initiatives in the Knesset were its provision of research assistants to Knesset committees before the establishment of the Knesset Research and Information Center in 2000, and the draft of a “constitution by agreement,” deliberated by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in the 16th Knesset.
The efforts of the IDI are admirable both because of the quality of its proposals and its persistence, despite the odds against its success. On Monday the IDI once again presented the Knesset with numerous proposals for strengthening democracy.
Among the proposals were the following: One of the main complaints against the quality of the Knesset’s work is that since there are only 120 MKs, and since our governments are inclined to be extremely large due to coalition agreements (today’s has more than 35 ministers and deputy ministers), there are fewer than 90 MKs actually available for Knesset work. There are several solutions to this problem, and the IDI proposes two: to reduce the size of the government by law and to increase the number of MKs to 180.
A third solution, not mentioned by the IDI, is to introduce the socalled Norwegian law. In parliamentary democracies that have such a legal provision, members of parliament who join the government resign their parliamentary seat. If, later on, they leave the government, they can regain their seat. If the Knesset were to adopt such a provision there would always be 120 full-time Knesset members, irrespective of the size of the government.
If the Knesset ever decides to do something about this problem, it will most likely opt for the Norwegian Law, which it has already seriously debated on several occasions since 1976. One of the reasons it is unlikely to increase the number of MKs is the cost, both in terms of salaries for the MKs, their assistants and additional employees, and the investment required to adapt the Knesset building.
THE PROBLEM which none of the proposals addresses is what the job of an MK consists of – a question that has never seriously been discussed.
For example, if it were to be decided that certain government business precedes private members’ business, and MKs should devote more time to dealing with government legislation and less to private members’ bills (95 percent of which fall by the wayside), the Knesset, even at its current size, could become much more efficient.
Changing the electoral system is also frequently debated. The main argument against the existing proportional representation is that it results in numerous parties (never fewer than 10), with none ever winning an absolute majority, and the frequently low quality of MKs, who are not directly elected. The IDI proposes a multi-member constituency system, with at least five representatives being directly elected in each constituency.
So far, no proposal for electoral reform (and there have been dozens since 1950) has been approved by the Knesset, since there is always a majority which fears the electoral consequences. The proposal that was closest to being adopted (in the late 1980s) offered a mixed system such as that in Germany, under which half the MKs would be elected under the existing system and the other half in single- or multi-member constituencies. This proposal was actively supported by Prof. Uriel Reichman (today president of the Interdisciplinary Center). This was also the proposal favored by the Magidor Committee, appointed by president Moshe Katsav in 2005 to deal with reforming the governance system, and which presented its report in January 2007.
Finally, the IDI is a persistent advocate of abolishing the annual Economic Arrangements Law, which it rightly claims undermines the foundations of democracy by bypassing the proper legislative process.
However, its crusade suffers from two main shortcomings: The first is its constant denial that such laws exist in other countries, and its avoidance of studying the measures taken by others to contend with the phenomenon. The second is its search for an absolute solution rather than a feasible one.
The only feasible solution is a package deal between the Knesset and the government on legislation, which will include a provision to slash the giant Arrangements Law to what is absolutely necessary in order to implement the state budget.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.