New Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has wasted no time putting his stamp on the way government operates.
He moved with surprising speed to separate policy decision-making between the Cabinet and the party.
The move is sharply at odds with the DPJ's campaign manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election, in which the party won a historic victory against the Liberal Democratic Party. In its election pledges, the party had called for all policy decisions to be made in the Cabinet.
That was done due to criticism about the policy decision-making structure under decades of LDP rule, in which party organs played major roles in approving all legislation that was submitted to the Diet by the LDP-led Cabinet.
At an Aug. 30 news conference, Noda said the DPJ policy chief should not concurrently hold a Cabinet post. Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, had insisted that the DPJ policy chief serve as state minister in charge of national policy.
Under LDP governments, legislation was first approved by the party's Policy Research Council and General Council.
That structure allowed the many LDP lawmakers who were not appointed to Cabinet posts to have a say in policy decision-making. In exchange, once legislation was submitted to the Diet, the system allowed for speedy approval because it had already been vetted by the ruling party.
However, when it was still in opposition, the DPJ criticized the LDP system on two fronts. One was that because policy decisions were made behind closed doors in party meetings, responsibility for policy remained unclear. The other criticism was that the system encouraged collusion among politicians, bureaucrats and business interests because lawmakers belonging to various policy lobbies were in a position to influence policy decisions.
That criticism led to inclusion in the 2009 DPJ campaign manifesto of a pledge to unify policy decision-making within the Cabinet under a DPJ government.
When Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister after the 2009 Lower House election, the DPJ's Policy Research Committee was abolished. All policy decisions were made within the Cabinet, centered on the minister, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries in each ministry.
However, that infuriated the many lawmakers who were effectively shut out of the policy decision-making process.
After Kan took over from Hatoyama, the Policy Research Committee was re-established. Kan then made sure that Koichiro Genba, the committee chairman, also served concurrently in his Cabinet as state minister in charge of national policy. In that way, the Cabinet continued to have a major say in policy decisions.
However, it was never clear to what extent the Cabinet had to abide by recommendations made by the Policy Research Committee. As the Kan administration's momentum declined--as reflected by falling ratings in public opinion polls--the party claimed a stronger voice in policy discussions. But that only seemed to complicate matters.
Noda's new proposal reflects what was once normal practice within the LDP.
When he appointed Seiji Maehara to head the Policy Research Committee, Noda made clear that his Cabinet would not approve any legislation, budget or treaty that had not been given the green light by the policy chief.
One aim of Noda's proposal is to strengthen party unity.
Noda, trying to clarify the role of the Policy Research Committee, said, "There will be a need to make changes so it is not considered simply as a forum for letting off steam."
His remark suggested that lawmakers who are not even parliamentary secretaries could still play a role in policy decision-making.
The second aim is to ensure smoother negotiations with the opposition parties, an especially important point given the Diet gridlock that plagued Noda's predecessor.
For the DPJ policy chief to serve as point man in the divided Diet--different parties control the two chambers--that person will have to have authority to make decisions.
Early on, Noda had considered Maehara as a possible policy chief because of his close personal ties with Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP policy chief.
Appointing Maehara to a Cabinet post would likely have opened a pandora's box. Noda realized that the opposition camp would seize on the opportunity to embarrass Maehara with questioning in the Diet about questionable political donations from a foreign national.
However, DPJ lawmakers may still try to form policy lobbies like those operated by the LDP in the past.
Genba, for one, has said Noda's new approach would weaken the Cabinet's unified authority to decide on policy.
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