Taiwan¡¦s lawmaking body is now an important and dynamic political institution, but many suggest that it needs some reforms to raise its effectiveness.
For decades, during the Chiang Kai-shek era, the Legislative Yuan (LY) served as little more than a rubber stamp for policies initiated in the executive branch. Most of the lawmakers were elected in 1947 from constituencies in mainland China and held their seats indefinitely thanks to a judicial ruling barring complete new elections until the ¡??recovery of the mainland.¡¨ By the 1980s -- aside from a small number of delegates chosen in ¡??supplementary elections¡¨ in Taiwan -- those legislators still alive were aged and often infirm.
When democracy burst upon Taiwan in the late 1980s with the lifting of martial law and the introduction of competitive party politics, the LY was the government institution that underwent the most dramatic change. From a sleepy chamber, the Yuan was transformed into what often resembled a boxing ring, with brawls breaking out on a regular basis between ruling party and opposition lawmakers. But the chaotic image was also a sign of the LY¡¦s growing political relevance. From 1992, when all remaining members of the ¡??thousand-year parliament¡¨ were forced into retirement and full-scale new elections were held, the Yuan¡¦s status was confirmed as a genuinely representative body.
Now as democracy in Taiwan becomes more consolidated, questions about the role of the LY in the political system have shifted to how to make the body a more modern and more efficient institution, one that can garner greater public respect. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has called the size of the 225-member body unwieldy and proposed a downsizing. It has also broached the idea of changing the electoral system from multi-seat to single-seat districts. Some legislators have proposed such reforms as revamping the committee membership and convenor (chairmanship) system, so as to develop more policy expertise and improve the quality of legislation. Currently each of the 12 standing committees every session elects three convenors, who take turns chairing the committee for several weeks each.
TOPICS spoke about these proposals with a scholar who has done extensive research on the LY and with leading legislators from the three largest political parties.
Hawang Shiow-duan is chair of the political science department at Taipei¡¦s Soochow University.
In general the quality of legislation isn¡¦t very good. One reason is that most legislators prefer to concentrate on their constituencies [building support for the next election], rather than on legislation. Most legislators aren¡¦t really specialized in any areas of policy, and the committee system isn¡¦t very professional. Legislators switch from one committee to another all the time. In one three-year term there are six sessions, and often they serve on a different committee every session. Maybe they think the committees aren¡¦t that important, because the committees don¡¦t have final say on legislation. Committee recommendations are often changed during inter-party negotiation meetings. Also, some say the legislators like to shop around among the different committees to see what kinds of benefit they might get.
Some legislators talk about [putting more emphasis on committees] and certain members really want to change the situation, but most of them just don¡¦t care. They think committee work is boring and also the media won¡¦t pay much attention to it. Usually several committees meet at one time and only certain committees attract the media. And you don¡¦t need to be a committee member to go to a committee meeting and speak. Some legislators go to several different committee meetings in one morning, speak at each one, and then leave right away.
Having three convenors originally was probably a kind of spoils system -- with 12 committees and three convenors, that¡¦s 36 positions. And each convenor is only allowed to be reelected once, so they change the convenors each session. That gives almost everyone a chance to be a convenor [even freshman legislators]. But the result is that the committee usually lacks an overall plan for the session. Each convenor just arranges the meeting agenda to fit his own interests.
The situation is even worse for the inter-party negotiations. The people that the parties send to the negotiations aren¡¦t specialized enough -- they may not have attended any of the committee meetings and may know nothing about that bill as a whole.
In 1999 there was some reform that increased the staff for legislators and committees and also created a budget center to help them to review the budget. Also a Congressional Library was established. Those changes were good, but one problem is that many of the legislators hire staff because they are personal friends, not because they are well qualified.
One phenomenon in the LY is the high turnover -- almost half the current members are in their first term. One reason is our multi-seat electoral system, which creates very high uncertainty. Even if you¡¦re popular and very qualified, you may still lose the election. If people think you¡¦re going to win anyway, they may vote for some other candidate. To reduce the number of legislators, you need to amend the constitution, but that¡¦s very difficult because you need three-fourths of the legislators to agree, and then elect a National Assembly and get three-fourths support there. President Chen put this on his agenda, but it¡¦ll be quite a difficult task unless there¡¦s a lot of public pressure.
Another thing that affects the quality of legislation is conflict of interest. If you want to change the system from three convenors to one, that problem has to be resolved first, otherwise you may have one person dominating the committee for years just for his own advantage. That would be terrible. The existing rules on conflict of interest are only symbolic, without any punishment.
Chiang Pin-kung (P.K. Chiang), Kuomintang, the deputy speaker of the LY, is in his first term. He formerly held several high-level executive branch positions.
As minister of economic affairs and also as chairman of economic planning, I saw that government efficiency depends very much on the performance of the LY. That¡¦s why during my chairmanship I went to Japan to study how the Diet is so efficient and disciplined, and I wrote a small book about it and gave it to every LY member. Lately I reprinted it and distributed it again.
One big problem is that Executive Yuan officials have to spend too much time in the LY, both for interpellation and also in committee. And it¡¦s getting worse. When I was a minister, I remember I only came for four days in the whole session, and the rest of the time the vice minister represented me. But now cabinet officials have to be there at least twice a week for questioning, plus budget sessions, and committee meetings. So we want to make some amendment to improve the questioning system. Otherwise nobody will want to become a minister.
In my paper I also said that since committee members should be specialized, they should stay in one committee for the whole three-year term. But today many people are changing committees every session. This is something we should revise.
Secondly, we allow members of other committees to come to ask questions in the committee meetings. They go around to committee meetings like gypsies. In Japan that¡¦s not allowed. But here they come in [during the proceedings] and repeat questions that were already asked. I¡¦d also like to see the press excluded from the meeting room. We can arrange [closed-circuit] monitors for them to look at.
Third, I said ministers should bring at most five persons with them. Today they¡¦re requested to bring all their directors general -- sometimes occupying the whole room. If they bring three or five people, that¡¦s good enough -- and if necessary they can supplement the answer in writing.
In the assembly sittings, we have a second reading and a third reading of each bill. In Japan those are not actually ¡??readings.¡¨ They negotiate the bill in committee with the opposition, and if they reach agreement, the committee chairman comes to make a presentation, people applaud, and it¡¦s finished. In our case you have read it article by article -- second reading and third reading. It sometimes takes three or four hours for one bill. This is something else we have to amend.
For questioning the prime minister, every legislator gets 30 minutes. In one day you can only take 8 to12 people. And they ask very similar questions again and again. It takes months to complete. In Japan it¡¦s only a few days. [The solution is that] the debate should be done by representatives of the parties and not individuals.
I¡¦ve asked one of our party members, legislator Hung Chao-nan, to draft an amendment to the internal law to improve operations, including the interpellation. We need to give ministers more tine to work in their offices. Also the convenor system -- having three convenors per committee is a very bad system. These things have nothing to do with the reduction of seats in the LY -- that¡¦s related to the Constitution, so it¡¦s not easy. But changing the internal rules is even more important and can be done much more quickly. I¡¦ve talked to [some DPP leaders] and we¡¦ve agreed that the best way is to pass the changes now, with the effective date as 2005 when the next legislature is elected. That¡¦s fair, because nobody knows who¡¦ll be the ruling party then and who¡¦ll be the opposition.
Hwang Yih-jiau (Daniel Hwang), People First Party, is a second-term legislator. He is the PFP spokesman and also one of its legislative whips.
The opposition is five seats short of a simple majority, but we can exert powerful oversight pressure upon the ruling party. From our point of view, the LY functions well. The efficiency isn¡¦t so negative as the DPP describes. The president and the prime minister systematically mobilize the media to discredit the Congress. They say this is a bunch of black gold people, inefficient people. And the people buy that propaganda, because historically in Taiwan out of 225 members of the LY, definitely there are some black sheep. But those people are a minority. The media should take a more balanced stance. If you harm the legislature to the very core, you¡¦re doing a disservice to democracy.
The LY is running smoothly. We have very powerful and comprehensive watchdogs -- [nonpartisan civic organizations] that closely follow the daily activities of LY members. They look at our tax returns, our attendance record at committees, and do some content analysis of our questioning of the respective ministers. They publish their findings from time to time, and it serves as moral as well as very real pressure upon most of the legislators¡¦ behavior.
Generally speaking the quality of the legislators this term has improved a great deal. And our politics are becoming more and more party-oriented. Take the PFP as an instance. We have a very disciplined party caucus and a strong party chairman. When a consensus is reached on the party line on an important issue, none of our 44 members will go astray. [The situation is similar in the other parties].
The DPP emphasizes that the total size of the LY should be downsized to 120 or 130 [seats]. They say 225 is out of proportion, but we don¡¦t buy that. Now each legislator represents roughly 100,000 people. If you look at the ratio between elected officials and the people in democracies worldwide, our ratio is in the middle. [Also downsizing would make the number of votes needed to pass bills in committee dangerously low]. There are unmentionable connections -- we all know that -- between politicians and outside interests. There¡¦s a very thin line on conflict of interest, and if you downsize to that degree, some of the committees might become controlled or influenced by people who have unhealthy connections.
We do have a disciplinary committee, but they haven¡¦t really fulfilled their mission. The structure is there, but it¡¦s seldom utilized. The speaker is very reluctant to send cases there. Chinese attach great importance to face and personal relations, and don¡¦t want to antagonize fellow senators. Only if there¡¦s a public outcry is a case likely to go to the disciplinary committee.
[With regard to building up a seniority system], most of the parties believe it¡¦s important but it can¡¦t be done overnight. The PFP has succeeded in introducing the concept in our party caucus and we hope to gradually bring it to the committee set-up. But first-term legislators are opposed to that. They say they¡¦d be left in the cold too long, waiting two terms, three terms -- that means six years, nine years -- for their turn to chair a committee.
The system of three convenors is a power-sharing concept. It¡¦s also a check and balance device. Some argue that the convenor rotation is too frequent. But it¡¦s not all bad. If only the old guard serves as convenors, it leads to inertia and lack of creativity.
Another problem is press coverage. Reporters are allowed to just walk into a committee meeting in progress. They swagger in, take their pictures, and block the sight lines of the members. And the presence of the media encourages legislators to engage in a kind of showmanship. When senators are questioning a minister and see a camera there, they¡¦ll seize the moment. They tend to raise their voice, raise the intensity of the questioning, and even resort to personality attacks. But no one dares to antagonize the media [by talking about placing controls on their access].
Shen Fu-hsiung, Democratic Progressive Party, is in his fourth term. He was formerly director of the DPP¡¦s Policy Research & Coordinating Committee.
The current chaotic situation in the House stems 80 percent from the fact that this is a minority government. Minority governments may work in Western Europe, where they¡¦ve developed the art of consensual politics. The majority rules, but the majority also respects the minority. That kind of culture is not mature yet in Taiwanese political society.
For the first time in more than 50 years, power has changed hands here. The KMT cannot adjust. They were in power for so long and then suddenly they lost it. They want the power back, so they always try to sabotage the administration so it won¡¦t have a good record. Also the DPP legislators were used to being in opposition. Suddenly they¡¦ve become the ruling party, but they can¡¦t see that they¡¦re gaining any benefit from it. And they¡¦re being asked to stay quiet and not be as noisy as in the past.
Although this isn¡¦t required by the constitution, I¡¦d like to see the presidential candidates -- Chen Shui-bian and Lien Chan -- promise to do several things, no matter who wins the next election. Number one, to nominate someone from the largest party and give him a one-month period to form a coalition government. Then if he fails, let someone else try. The party with the largest number of seats can represent the mainstrean of public opinion and should have the privilege of being the one to make the first try.
Number two is to end the system where every committee has three co-chairmen. In a sixteen-week session, each chairman has about five weeks [to preside], and each chairman can pick his preferred bills for deliberation. That means the committee has no clearcut direction. The coalition government should have the mandate to have the chairmanship of each committee. If we can do things that way starting next May 20, no matter who wins the presidential race, we can have a majority government.
In terms of the quality of individual congressman, it isn¡¦t up to the standard you see in America. And the number of staff members, the resources at your disposal and the allocation of funds isn¡¦t really adequate. For example, in the common office building, each of us is allocated just 12 ping (432 square feet). So I rent this 60-ping office outside and pay for it myself. And they give us eight congressional aides, but I always maintain a staff of around 14. So every month there¡¦s nothing left from my pay to bring home.
Everyone wants the number of LY seats to be reduced. The reason is that the behavior of the House in the past has been notorious. Right now, on the surface, the KMT and the PFP don¡¦t disagree with the single-seat-district idea proposed by the ruling party. However, deep in the heart of every member across party lines, they¡¦re all very reluctant to change the system because they don¡¦t know which district they would have to run in. And now there¡¦s a new development. The major opposition to changing to single-seat districts is coming from some vocal feminist groups [because the existing guarantee that 25 percent of the seats be reserved for female members would have to abandoned in the new system]. That presents a big headache for the DPP.
We¡¦ve revised the LY internal rules two times in the past few years, but now some of us think we need to do it a third time. For any bill to be finally concluded in the assembly, it needs inter-party negotiation. But right now the way we do that has several defects. Number one is that they don¡¦t really respect the first version passed by the committee. I feel it shouldn¡¦t be changed without a very strong reason. Number two, if you aren¡¦t the one who submitted the version or if you aren¡¦t a member of the committee, you shouldn¡¦t participate in the inter-party negotiation. But sometimes there is outside influence from non-members of the committee.
Why we need the party negotiation is that very often there are different opinions at the committee level. If that isn¡¦t ironed out, then in the Assembly the speaker is forced to call a vote on each item in the bill article by article. It could take 15 minutes for each article, and a bill may have 100 articles. But if we iron out the differences during negotiation, then in the assembly the bill can pass easily. As long as everyone comes to the negotiation table with a good conscience, it¡¦s a good system.
[Regarding the questioning of ministers], our system is neither a parliamentarian nor a presidential system. In the United States you don¡¦t have such a practice. In Japan or Britain, their own party members don¡¦t take so long to question the cabinet members, because they¡¦re from among your colleagues. But our ruling party members say the question time is their only opportunity to get public exposure -- that if you take that away that privilege, how can I get reelected next time? So they have their point too.