The politics of portfolios

A ministerial portfolio should not be treated as a prize or a perk but as an opportunity for selfless public service.

Israeli Knesset  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israeli Knesset
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the final stretch of forming Israel’s 34th government. But he has one more hurdle to overcome – discontent within his own party.
A number of Likud MKs see themselves as worthy of ministerial portfolios. There is one small problem: an amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government, which would limit the number of ministers to 18, not including the prime minister, is set to go into effect. The amendment would also ban the practice of appointing ministers without portfolios and would limit the number of deputy ministers as well.
If this amendment goes into effect, Netanyahu will have less leeway in buying the loyalty of Likud MKs through portfolios.
No worries. Netanyahu intends to hold a vote to postpone implementation of the amendment, which would allow him to appoint as many ministers as he wishes, though he plans on appointing 22 ministers and four deputy ministers.
The High Court of Justice, which was petitioned by MKs from Yesh Atid who initiated the amendment in 2014, rightly announced it would not intervene in a legislative process still under way.
Now all Netanyahu needs is a majority of 61 MKs willing to vote in favor of postponing the amendment.
That is precisely the size of his coalition. Every vote counts – literally.
Netanyahu has purposely put off passing out about a dozen ministerial portfolios to Likud MKs until after the vote, out of concern that those who do not receive a portfolio will be disgruntled enough to take revenge by abstaining, thus depriving him of the 61 votes he needs.
While we understand Netanyahu’s dilemma, we believe that keeping the number of ministers to a minimum is important.
First, it saves money. Finance Ministry budget director Amir Levi wrote in a letter to cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit that each additional minister would cost between NIS 2.8 million and NIS 3.9m. each year, and that each additional deputy minister would cost NIS 1.5m.
Second, increasing the number of ministers leads to an increase in the number of ministries. Too many ministries makes for an inefficient civil service, since in any given ministry an estimated 35-40 percent of the workers are engaged as general staff that don’t necessarily increase the scope of services to the public.
Third, by anchoring in law a maximum number of ministers, we can prevent the sort of cynical haggling over jobs that has little to do with the public’s best interests and everything to do with politicians’ egos.
If Likud MKs and members of the coalition from other parties know that there is a limit to the number of portfolios, they will begin negotiations in accordance.
There is always the chance that pressure will build to amend Basic Law: The Government again. That is precisely what happened in 1999 when Ehud Barak changed the law so that he could increase the number of ministers. Ever since, there has been a major inflation in the number of ministers from 26 in Barak’s government to a record 30 in Netanyahu’s 2009 government.
The Czech Republic, Finland, Portugal, Ireland, Austria, Slovakia, Belgium, Hungary and Switzerland, which all have populations comparable in size to Israel’s, have fewer than 18 ministers.
We must put back in place the 18-minister limit that was first legislated back in 1992 to fight against the sharp rise following the national unity governments of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The number 18 is not holy. The number could just as well be 17 or 19. But the guiding principle should be keeping government expenditures and bureaucracy to a minimum and fighting egoistic political haggling.
Politicians should have the interests of the wider public in mind, not self-aggrandizement, power and publicity. A ministerial portfolio should not be treated as a prize or a perk but as an opportunity for selfless public service.