Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why Would Waiting An Extra Month or More Would Make It Any Easier to Pass the Refueling Bill?

There is talk within the LDP about not forcing a House of Representatives supermajority override vote on the new bill to extend the OEF-MIO refueling operations for another year during this extraordinary Diet. Instead, some LDP Diet members are talking about postponing the initial H.R. vote to the next regular session (typically convened in the bottom half of January), or even to let it die in the House of Councilors and resubmit it to start again at square one at the regular session. The reasoning appears to be that forcing the issue now would cause the DPJ and the opposition to pass a censure motion of the Fukuda Cabinet, which could force the Prime Minister to dissolve the H.R. for an early election. The reluctance of the pacifist coalition partner New Komeito to force the matter is also cited as a concern. Taku Yamazaki, head of the LDP-New Komeitō special team for the legislation, and former LDP Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa, are two prominent LDP members calling for restraint.

But why do the people doing this talking believe that waiting up to another extra month (in the case of H.R. vote postponement) or three months or more (in the case of resubmission) to get the deal done will bring more of the public - let alone the DPJ - around to the LDP's views? To the general public, this is not an issue on the death-and-taxes level, or one with the emotional resonance of, say, the abductees. Thus, what public perception there is will continue to be molded by the media, rather than the other way around.

As it is, Yomiuri and Sankei are firmly behind an extension, while Asahi continues to question the accountability of the operations and their link to the Iraq War. I have little awareness of how this is playing out on TV, but I assume that the broadcasting networks are not doing things that materially change perception created by the mainstream print media. Accordingly, the bulk of the don't-knows have climbed off the fence over the last couple of months and tended to migrate to the support column; if you average out the left-to-right media polls, it looks like the public has come around to give the operations a reasonably strong plurality. And the media does not look likely to change their tune. Thus, to let your decision on the supermajority override turn on further enhancing this support by bringing the remaining fence-sitters to your corner or even converting some doubters looks like a dangerous course of action.

The people suggesting a delay must be hoping that the need to attend to such domestic affairs will give the Prime Minister a good excuse not to call a snap election in the inevitable H.C. censure vote after the H.R. override. But the Fukuda administration will have to balance that against a four-, five-month gap in Japanese operations, which would be a serious diplomatic embarrassment. Add to this the serious leadership question this will raise if he is seen to be caving in to the opposition. There's a point where man of reason tips over into wimp.

And how serious is the threat of an early election anyway? Will the media call on the Fukuda administration to resign or seek a new mandate in the case of an override during the current Diet session, and the public follow suit? And if the Prime Minister does neither, and causes the DPJ to step up its intransigence and obstruct proceedings altogether during the regular Diet session, do the LDP members now calling for restraint think that the media and the public will blame the LDP, but not the DPJ?

Barring an unforeseen turn for the worse in public sentiment, I don't see the Prime Minister backing off and tabling the issue until the regular Diet session.

Also important is the fact that, at the regular Diet session, the media spotlight will be on the new FY 2208 budget proposal and other bread-and-butter issues such as the public pension system and taxes. As a practical matter, the extension bill will have to share the Diet agenda with the budget and all the other legislative bills, and the delay could stretch ahead even longer, into the early months of FY 2008, April and beyond, before the bill is even introduced.

There is a further technical issue involved here, namely, whether the refueling bill is a budget-related bill, that is, legislation linked to the execution of the budget. I don't remember enough about the definition, but the fact that the bill can be introduced now without the occasion of a supplementary budget suggests that it's not. If this casual guess of mine is correct, that means that, by custom, the bill will not be resubmitted until April, after the budget has passed and all the budget-related bills have been taken care of. That would take the JMSDF out of refueling operations until June at the earliest.

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