Friday, April 04, 2008

For Tarō Kōno and His Cohorts, It’s Not Just about the Money

Tarō Kōnō, the somewhat-outlier Lower House member for the LDP (it’s easy to get away with a little eccentricity when you are a multi-heritage seat-holder), supports the Prime Minister’s gasoline tax-and-spending proposal, and according to this Mainichi report, is one of the ringleaders of the new “Group to Support the Fukuda Proposal and Achieve the Conversion of Road-Specific Funds to General Funds 「福田提案を支持し、道路特定財源の一般財源化を実現する会」”, a 55-member group of relatively junior LDP and New Kōmeitō Diet members that held its first meeting yesterday (April 3). In fact, he supports it so strongly, he actually opposes it. Well, sort of. For Mr. Kōno intends to vote against a legislative bill that features a ten-year extension of a provision in the special measures act that regulates the use of the gasoline taxes revenues, rightly pointing out that you don’t need a ten-year extension if you intend to eliminate the road-specific funds next year. The bill passed the Lower House and sent to the Upper House on March 13. The 60-day magic deadline falls on May 12. First, let’s look at the immediate consequences.

There are three possibilities. The first scenario is the simplest one. The Upper House rejects the bill or does not vote by May 12, and the Lower House ultimately passes the bill unaltered in a super majority override. There will be some political fallout, and the battle will recommence later in the year. In any case, the ruling coalition must come up with an amendment during the is fiscal year in order to keep Prime Minister Fukuda’s promise to end the earmark in FY 2009.

The second scenario also follows Upper House rejection/neglect, but enough coalition members abstain (possibly, just possibly, vote against it) that the bill fails to pass. It’s highly unlikely, but not impossible. If every member of the Lower House not a member of the coalition except the Chairman votes against the bill in the revote (improbable, but let’s keep it really simple) and the Chairman abstains, then only 16 47 (Big mistake. This post should be rewritten to reflect the much lower probability of this happening, but you see my point.) coalition members need abstain for the supermajority override to fail. That’s not an inconceivable figure, but remember, there are independents and rogue DPJ members who could very well go the other way (say, the six Lower House members from New People’s Party, whose leaders you must remember were kicked out for opposing the Post Office privatization bill, the cornerstone of the Koizumi reforms), so the actual number of abstentions needed to kill the bill should be higher. Conversely, if (in the highly unlikely event that) some of Mr. Kōnō and friends actually vote against it, the coalition will need more votes in favor that in the case of abstentions only. The immediate practical consequences of a vote-down are surprisingly minor. The dedication of a minimum amount of the gasoline tax money (actually most of it, but that’s the way the provision is constructed) to the road development and maintenance fund will end this fiscal year (FY2008), one year earlier than the Fukuda Proposal. But this should not affect the relevant budgets, which came into effect at the beginning of this fiscal year, since there are no legal limits to the amount of gasoline money that you can put into the road development and maintenance budget. Politically, though, it will be a source of great embarrassment to the Fukuda administration, and seriously damage its prospects for long-term survival. But the main event is the surcharge extension, whose 60-day waiting period expires on April 29, and the coalition should be able to stick together through that. That means that the Fukuda administration will survive in any case through the summer.

The third and most unlikely scenario - let’s say about as unlikely as a giant meteor hitting the Diet building while both Houses are in meeting in plenary - is that the coalition and the opposition agree to amend the bill to limit the extension to one year. The DPJ will not make any such concessions, though, unless the LDP agrees to drop the surcharge immediately. The two measures - the surcharge and the minimum earmark - not linked legally, but are indivisible in the political minds of the DPJ leadership. It wants to force the coalition to exercise the supermajority as often as possible on this issue.

The most interesting aspect of the new group, though, as Tobias Harris points out here, is its generational implications. For Mr. Kōnō and the other LDP leaders of the group, Yasufumi Tanahashi and Kenichi Mizuno, are a relatively youthful 45, 45 and 41, respectively. Yet because of the early start they got in politics (two of them are heirloom Diet members and the other is a former, second-generation bureaucrat), they are already into their fourth term as Lower House members. (One of them actually served as a Cabinet member in the Koizumi administration.) The Seisaku Shinjinrui, headed by men such as Nobuteru Ishihara and Takahisa Shiozaki, first made their mark in the late 1990s on the occasion of the financial Big Bang, and continued to play a significant role in the Koizumi reforms. However, they all are now well into their fifties, and the political clock in the LDP has gone into reverse. Shinzō Abe, the only Prime Minister of their generation, has been followed after his short, unhappy regime by that the Mr. Fukuda, a septuagenarian, who in turn is being stalked by the 67-year old Tarō Asō. All of the major Cabinet posts are going to men in their sixties. Junichirō Koizumi, who could reclaim the Prime Minister’s chair any time he wants, is 66. And pulling strings behind (and sometimes in front of) the backdrop is former Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori, who… But you see my point.

As it happens, the articulate trio, as reform-minded Koizumi disciples, have a measure of influence over the Koizumi Kids, who must be beside themselves with worry over the prospects for their next election, which they must face no later than September next year. They surely must have ambitions of leapfrogging their immediate elders, the former Seisaku Shinjinrui (my generation!), whose careers appear to be stalling for the moment**. Holding up the reform flag anew and calling on their colleagues to rally around it is a good way to make some of that Koizumi magic rub off on them as well.

* Incidentally, Tobias’s essay is very well argued, although I do not fully agree with his analysis. The current clash “on a matter of principle” at bottom, like on all the other issues that he lists, currently boils down to a conflict grounded on political convenience. The public is aware of this, which is why the public is disillusioned not only with the LDP and the Fukuda administration, but also the DPJ.

** Note that Mr. Ishihara, who had thrived as an independent, succumbed to the siren call of the habatsu and recently joined the Yamazaki faction. This has moved him forward as a Prime Minister candidate, but also brands him as a conventional politician.

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