The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy

25-Jun-2008

Poli. Sci. 101 for MK Yitzhak Levy

Filed under: Democratic MethodsCabinet/ExecutiveKnesset/LegislativeRepresentation — eidelberg @ 6:16 am

Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, June 23, 2008.

Knesset Member Yitzhak Levy wants to raise the number of Knesset members from 120 to 150. As reported in The Jerusalem Post last week (June 18, 2008), Levy complains that “the workload placed on MKs had grown to such an extent that it was simply impossible to adequately study the issues upon which MKs were expected to vote in a plenum, as well as in committees in which they sit.”

Mr. Levy also complains that, given the system of coalition cabinet government, some 30 MKs—one out of every four members—currently serves as either a minister or deputy minister, and that’s an additional assignment which distracts from their participation in the legislative function.

Levy’s proposal to increase the Knesset’s membership may be indicative of the incompetence of Israel’s legislative body. Let’s compare the Knesset with the American House of Representatives, beginning with the House.

Each American congressman represents in the range of 510,000 residents in Wyoming to 940,000 in Montana. Considered nationally, the 435 members of the House of Representatives represents approximately 300 million Americans, which means that the average congressman represents 690,000 persons. Let’s compare this with the Knesset.

Israel’s population is about 7.3 million. Hence, each of the Knesset’s 120 members represents about 61,000 persons, less than 10 percent the number of represented by an American congressman!

Bearing in mind that the United States is the world’s number one superpower, with a GDP of more than $13 trillion (2006 est.) and with embassies, consulates, and trade missions in almost 200 countries, it’s reasonable to assume that American congressmen, whose tenure is two years, are no less overworked than Israeli legislators.

Admittedly, American congressmen have more legislative and administrative assistants. These are professional people, not politicians. So here is what I suggest. Mr. Levy, instead of wasting hundreds of millions of shekels on the salaries and perks of 30 additional politicians, why not use this money to hire university graduates or experts in the various public sectors of Israeli government.

I have another suggestion for Mr. Levy. To improve the legislative function of the Knesset, why don’t you advocate the abolition of coalition cabinet government, which, as you see, diverts 30 Knesset members from their legislative workload. Indeed, Mr. Levy, a cabinet consisting of 30 MKs representing several parties is a basic cause of personal and partisan rivalries, frivolous distractions, and corruption for which Israel has become notorious.

Stand up and tell the truth Mr. Levy: Multi-party cabinet government renders it virtually impossible for the government—whose average duration is 23 months—to pursue coherent, resolute and long-range national policies—and the Israeli wage-earner pays for the costly consequences of this grotesque system.

Here is an opportunity for you Mr. Levy to rise above shoddy politics. Stand up and tell the misgoverned people of Israel that you want to scrap multi-party cabinet government and replace it with a unitary executive or presidential system of government. Insist, however, that cabinet members must not be members of the Knesset, that the cabinet should consist not of party hacks but of professionally qualified persons nominated by the president and confirmed by a majority vote of the legislature.

Alas, Mr. Levy needs a course in Poli. Sci. 101. He should be informed that increasing the membership of the Knesset, you necessarily increase the diversity of opinions and interests of that assembly, and this can only render deliberation and consensus more difficult. Perhaps someone should also whisper to Mr. Levy that by increasing the Knesset’s membership you diminish the power of each MK—something Levy could have learned simply by reading the Federalist Papers, available, belatedly, in Hebrew.

But let’s get back to basics. A word from Newt Gingrich, former member of the House of Representatives. He notes that effective leaders always consider the visible problems to be a symptom of a deeper underlying problem. That’s what I have been saying for many years. You’re complaining about an overworked Knesset. But the basic problem is theis: Israel has made the nation a single nationwide district where fixed party lists compete for Knesset seats by proportional representation. This is what prevents you from getting a Knesset capable of serious deliberation, of enacting well thought out legislation.

From the menagerie of your legislative branch you get the members of your executive branch—the cabinet. No separation of the two branches. That’s not good political science, not when you consider the following facts.

First of all, more than 20 to 30 parties compete every 23 months—on an average—for Knesset seats. Since 10 or more of these parties succeed in passing the electoral threshold, today only 2 percent, do you really believe that adding 30 MKs is going to improve the legislative function of the Knesset, that it will make the laws more conducive to the prosperity, the security, and the happiness of the nation?

But Mr. Levy, no party has ever won a Knesset majority; Israel has never had a party that actually represents a majority of the electorate let alone the nation. Haven’t you heard that such is the acrimonious and slanderous character of what passes for debate in the Knesset that people call Israeli politics the “politics of pornography”? Don’t you know that nine of ten people in this country regard the Knesset as a den of iniquity? And you want to enlarge this Knesset?

Even if this assessment is unfair, and even if members of the Knesset were no longer overburdened by the legislative workload, in other words, even if the Knesset enacted sound laws, what good would this do when the implementation of the laws depends on the executive branch, where the average duration of a cabinet minister is only 18 months? Even if a cabinet minister had the wherewithal to formulate the details required to administer the law, is it not the case that his work can readily be undone by his successor representing a rival party?

Mr. Levy: you are a religious man. Don’t you know that, given Israel’s dysfunctional political system, only God Almighty has preserved this meshugina country? Of course, the Almighty could use a little help. But it’s not going to come by adding 30 run-of-the-mill politicians to the Knesset.

By the way, Mr. Levy, don’t you know that multi-party cabinet government actually violates the teachings of the Torah. Allow me to refer you to my book Jewish Statesmanship. There I point out that the Torah discourages collective leadership—hence multi-party cabinet government. Thus, when Moses instructed Joshua, his successor, to consult with the elders and follow their advice, God countermanded him, saying that Joshua alone should lead the people into the Land of Israel. “There can be but one leader for a [people] and not two.” That’s what it says in Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verse 7. And this is elaborated in the Babylonian Talmud, in Sanhedrin, 8a.

By the way, Mr. Levy, the Sanhedrin had only 70 members, and they were not only judges but legislators. Okay, you can say legislatures are more complicated nowadays, that they have many more functions. But perhaps the issue concerning legislators is not their number so much as their quality? Let me therefore remind you of the qualities required of members of the Sanhedrin—and here I refer you to what Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah.

Of course, every member had to be expert in Torah. But he also had to be well versed in many branches of science, such as astronomy, mathematics, logic, anatomy, and medicine. And he also had to possess knowledge of non-Torah subjects, including the ways of other nations. Maimonides studied Aristotle, from whom one could learn that large political assemblies are not conducive to deliberation.

One last word: Apart from Finland, Israel is the only country that does not require a quorum for enacting laws. This encourages absenteeism, which is enormous in the Knesset. It is also reported that absenteeism is conspicuous in meetings of Knesset committees, where the main work of law-making takes place. Some say it’s easier to find an MK in the Knesset cafeteria. I wonder what Mr. Levy has to say about this matter, which may take us beyond Poli. Sci. 101.

 

Postscript

Apropos of my article, my friend Robert Warren reminds me that the US Senate and House of Representatives use pages and interns at no cost. This allows young people to develop skills and experience in tandem with the US Government, thus saving public funds.

Thanks, Bob.