Behind the Scenes of Israel's Ministerial Committee For Legislation

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There are ways to transform this powerful committee into one that combines politics with professionalism, instead of being one more arena for the settling of political scores.

Last week, for the umpteenth time, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation was the scene of a clash among the members of the coalition—this time between its chair, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and the coalition chair, MK David Bitan. The conflicts and threats always follow the same model: “If you don’t pass my bill I won’t pass yours.” At the end of its session the committee decided not to move ahead on any of the topics on its agenda, because of a previous decision not to vote on a bill that would bar the conducting of a criminal investigation of a sitting prime minister.

In recent years the Ministerial Committee for Legislation has become a political power center, because that is where the fate of private members bills is decided and much of the political and public agenda is determined. In the early days of the state, this was a professional committee, composed of ministers with substantial legal backgrounds whose function was to perform a sort of quality control on proposed government-sponsored legislation. In recent years, however, it has deteriorated into an arena for settling political scores.

The parliamentary opposition is almost always excluded from the game. A bill sponsored by an opposition MK has scant chance of getting past the committee. With regard to the bills of coalition members, too, we have recently witnessed a new pattern emerge. Instead of flatly rejecting proposals at the risk of damaging collegial relations, the committee simply defers any discussions on these measures. This is an elegant way to hint to Knesset members that they should withdraw their bills and resubmit them for discussion at a more appropriate time.

The way the Ministerial Committee for Legislation functions raises complex dilemmas related to the checks and balances among the different branches of government. On the one hand, it is an arm of the government—the executive—that has life-and-death power over private member’s bills. On the other hand, given the rabbit-like proliferation of such proposals, the committee has become an essential mechanism for screening thousands of bills, some of which are blatant plays for attention in the media and Facebook rather than genuine attempts to promote some worthy policy or agenda. The political power of this committee is exceptional. In other countries with a parliamentary system similar to ours, most legislative proposals originate with the government and are debated at its regular sessions or by professional cabinet subcommittees.

Another problematic aspect concerns the committee’s reasoning and the transparency of its discussions and decisions. Its meetings are closed to the public, it does not provide any grounds for rejecting a bill, and it only releases its final decision, without further explanation.

The present situation cannot continue. To give the committee’s activities the fairness, professionalism, and transparency it should have, the first step is to limit the number of private bills that an MK may submit during a Knesset term. At first sight, this may seem like "punishing" MKs for the committee’s dereliction. In fact, it would lead to an improvement in the quality of the bills, at the expense of their quantity. There is no other legislature in the world where thousands of private members bills are submitted every year. Reducing their number would enhance the level of the ministerial committee’s deliberations and decisions. Only serious legislative proposals, the result of intensive preparatory work that involves professional echelons in the government and public, and enjoying the support of broad political alliances, would come up for debate, and the committee’s discussion would thus be more serious and thorough.

At the same, time, the committee’s work must be more transparent. It needs to publish a detailed record of its meetings, with the reasons for its rejection of a proposal and all the opinions submitted by the Justice Ministry and relevant government agencies. In this way, MKs would know the basis of the rejection of their bill and whether it was on relevant grounds or pure politics. This would make the committee, for which there is no alternative today, into a body that combines politics with professionalism, instead of being one more arena for the settling of political scores.

The authors are research fellows at the Israel Democracy Institute.