Continue discussions to ensure transparency of expenses paid to Diet members

The introduction of a system under which an allowance for lawmakers is paid at a daily rate rather than monthly is inevitable. It is hard to understand why discussions aimed at increasing transparency have not progressed. Ruling and opposition parties should continue discussions and settle the issue as soon as possible.

Five ruling and opposition parties have agreed to change the system from a monthly to daily allowance, which is intended to cover the costs of documents, correspondence, travel and accommodation. They plan to enact a bill to revise the law concerning salaries and allowances paid to Diet members in the near future.

Issues have been raised with the current situation in which the full allowance of ¥1 million per month is paid even if lawmakers are in office for only one day of the month. If the law is revised, lawmakers would receive the allowance on a daily basis, from the first day of their term, in principle.

Annual salaries for Diet members are already paid on a daily basis. A review of the allowance system can be said to be in line with common sense.

A first-term lower house lawmaker raised the issue after last year’s House of Representatives election, triggering discussions on a review of the allowance system. Opposition parties have insisted on not only pro-rata payments but also the disclosure of the use of such funds and the introduction of a system to return unused funds. However, the ruling coalition has maintained its position that it would take time to study additional proposals, and therefore, discussions on pro-rata payments should be prioritized.

A by-election for the Ishikawa prefectural constituency of the House of Councillors will be held on April 24. There is reportedly consensus among ruling and opposition parties that the daily payments will apply to the winner of the poll.

Although the action to review the system may seem too late, it would be appropriate to prioritize areas where agreement can be reached and start making improvements to the system.

The problem is the delay in addressing the remaining issues, such as how to restrict and disclose the usage of the allowance.

The current law outlines the purposes of the allowance as “sending public documents, correspondence of an official nature, etc.” But the revised bill would change the scope to “Diet activities including research and study, public relations, exchanges with the public and accommodation.” The name of the disbursement would also be changed to the “allowance for research and study, public relations and accommodation.”

From the outset, the allowance has been viewed as problematic because there was no obligation to report the usage of the funds, and they were widely used for purposes other than correspondence — the main purpose of the funds. Cases have come to light in which the money was used to buy goods, pay salaries for secretaries and make investments overseas.

While the intention of the proposed changes may be to maintain the status quo, it would be problematic to simply change the name of the allowance and maintain the system or expand the scope of the application in the face of criticism.

If the scope of the allowance is expanded, it is reasonable to consider first and foremost a system to report and disclose the usage, including the submission of receipts.

In 2001, a commission on lower house reform set up by the lower house speaker submitted a report stating that the allowance should be paid in proportion to the amount spent, and lawmakers should be required to report how the funds were used and the information should be made public. Neglecting the proposals for more than 20 years is nothing short of irresponsible.

Local assemblies are now introducing systems for reporting and disclosing expenses related to political activities that assembly members are eligible to receive. The Diet also needs to swiftly consider a system that the public would find acceptable.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 14, 2022)