Japan from the inside out

How much does a Diet member cost?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 23, 2008

DON’T GET THE WRONG IDEA–the headline doesn’t refer to the funds required for hanagusuri, or nose medicine, one the Japanese terms for bribery.

It refers instead to a budget proposal by New Komeito, Japan’s forgotten political party. They’re trying to maintain their relevance despite being overshadowed by their Liberal Democratic Party stable mates, with whom they nominally rule in a coalition government. Because the party, which is considered by some to be the unofficial political arm of the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, receives little coverage in the media, it’s difficult to know what they stand for. Then again, that’s difficult to figure out even when you read their website.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they stand for something.

New Komeito issued a draft version of their new party platform at the end of last month. It was briefly mentioned in the press, and the few people who read about it promptly forgot all about it. That’s a shame, because it contained some capital suggestions.

The pick of the litter was a 10% slash of the salaries and benefits of Diet members and national civil servants at the level of bureau chief and above.

That’s not coming out of the clear blue, because cash-strapped local governments throughout the country have implemented similar, and even more radical, pay cuts. True, New Komeito could have come up with an better idea for using the money saved—namely, to give it back to the citizens in the form of lower taxes.

Well, we can dream, can’t we? And while we’re dreaming, let’s include the fantasy that politicians are going to start pinching the public’s pennies because they’ve finally understood it’s not their money to begin with.

But when someone starts talking about a 10% cut in MP salaries and benefits, at least now they’re talking about some real money.

How Much Does a Diet Member Cost?

Former upper house member Fudesaki Hideyo, a member of the Japan Communist Party who resigned over a sexual harassment scandal, provided some details on the remuneration Diet members receive during a roundtable discussion that was presented in book form in Sangi-in Nanka Iranai, or We Don’t Need an Upper House!

During the discussion, he mentioned that all members of the upper and lower house receive an annual salary of 22 million yen (as of last year). That’s $US 206,000, give or take some spare change.

But he also brought up their 12 million yen annual allowance for documents, communications, transportation, and lodging expenses.

Mr. Fudesaki points out the allowance alone would make a handsome salary for the average employee. It’s the equivalent of $US 112,000.

Tax free.

And those funds aren’t subject to auditing, so no receipts are required to confirm expenditures.

Crunching the Numbers

The former Diet member thought a breakdown of this allowance into its individual components would reveal that it was unnecessary.

For example, the privilege to send mail for free is roughly similar to the franking privileges received by members of the U.S. Congress. The law states that Japanese parliamentarians can send public documents or documents related to government business free of charge.

But Mr. Fudesaki points out that most of the communication conducted by Diet members is sending PR–free campaign advertising–to local constituents about their Diet activities. The funds are used to cover these mailing expenses and their telephone bills. He doesn’t think those qualify as “public documents”. In fact, he wonders how much of this annual allowance is spent on drinking parties or on personal expenditures.

As an ex-Diet member, he should know.

He also wonders why there is a need for a transportation allowance. All Diet members ride in JR’s Green Cars for free. That means first class rail transportation nationwide. They also receive free passes for private railroads and buses. Those who live outside the capital area receive four free round-trip air tickets to their home districts a month.

Both houses share what is called the Motor Vehicle Division, which has close to 200 automobiles—black, naturally—and an equal number of drivers at their disposal. The limousines are used mostly for the commute to their Tokyo lodgings and to and from the airport for their trips home. (These are called the Friday-Tuesday trips: Friday afternoon flights home, and Tuesday morning flights back to Tokyo.) The cars and their drivers usually sit idle, especially when the Diet isn’t in session.

Is an additional transportation allowance really necessary?

Living expenses are also included in the allowance. This benefit is provided for those MPs from outside the Tokyo area who have to maintain a separate residence in the capital.

Except that those who live in the capital receive the same allowance too. And all MPs can live in government apartments at sharply discounted rents.

Why are living expenses reimbursed?

Wait, we haven’t gotten around to their annual tax-free allowance of 7.8 million yen for “studying legislation” (slightly more than $US 73,000). Nor have we mentioned that the government provides a financial subsidy to political parties that amounts to roughly 44 million yen per member (slightly more than $US 412,000). The justification for the last one is to keep the parties from shaking down businesses for political contributions. Ha!

Put all this cash in the same pot with the transportation freebies and the total bill for the taxpayer comes to roughly 100 million yen a year for each member (about $US 938,000). The combined membership of the upper and lower houses is 722 people.

We’re not done yet.

Here’s a Kyodo report describing how 150 MPs from both houses either have been or will travel abroad this summer. At taxpayer expense.

Lawmakers are defending the trips as an opportunity to exchange views with counterparts in other countries and carry out fact-finding missions abroad…

What facts are they finding abroad?

Diet affairs committee chiefs of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, as well as the Democratic Party of Japan and Social Democratic Party, are visiting Australia from Monday to look at the decision-making process of the country’s parliament.

Considering how they’ve conducted the Diet’s business since the DPJ gained control of the upper house in July 2007, they’re unlikely to learn much, and even less likely to apply it if they did.

Keep in mind there are roughly as many people in metropolitan Tokyo as there are in all of Australia.

And don’t forget that New Komeito was the party to come up with the idea of cutting Diet member swag by 10%. Maybe the party’s reps are going along on the junket to observe how Australia’s parliament cuts its members’ salaries.

Members of the Lower House’s special committee on disasters have been in China’s Sichuan Province since Sunday to examine the damage inflicted by the May 12 quake.

Wow, look at all that rubble!

They will also travel to Italy and Romania to study antidisaster measures there.

Then again, maybe the legislators are telling the truth. After all, why would anyone visit Romania on a summer junket when they have so many other semi-plausible destinations they could choose from?

Don’t answer that!

A group led by Akiko Santo, vice president of the Upper House, is on a trip to Europe, counting France and Italy as destinations, between July 8 and Monday to hold talks with senior members of European parliaments.

Paris is lovely in the summer, they say.

You know, it’s a shame the media didn’t pay much attention to the New Komeito proposal.

And it’s even more of a shame that we’ll probably never hear about it again.

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