All in Favor / Pulling a Fast One

Knesset members have not yet recovered from the shock of last month's cabinet meeting: Ministers were asked to approve some 200 decisions and reforms affecting various sectors of the economy - otherwise known as the Economic Arrangements Bill accompanying the 2008 budget - without even knowing what some of them were all about.

This was not a new phenomenon; it happens every year. At every cabinet meeting on the annual budget, ministers are confronted with a huge stack of decisions, some of which they have barely managed to read, much less understand in terms of their implications.

Cabinet meetings on the budget are lengthy and exhausting. Outside the room, ministers dicker with Finance Ministry officials to secure the cancelation of cuts or reforms affecting their ministries; if they succeed, they pledge support for the bill. Others go out to tell the media of all their objections to the proposals. Finally, late at night, when the exhausted ministers just want to go home, the cabinet approves the whole shebang in the blink of an eye.

That, however, is just the beginning: Next, most of the ministers go to Knesset members and urge them to overturn these decisions, or to pressure the government to increase their ministry's budget.

The hasty budget approval process, in both the cabinet and the Knesset, outrages Knesset Constitution Committee Chair Menachem Ben-Sasson (Kadima). The professor-turned-MK is therefore working on a bill that would require the treasury to give the cabinet the proposed budget 30 days in advance, so that ministers could study it thoroughly.

He also wants the treasury to give the Knesset the highlights of its projected economic and budgetary policy (deficit target, spending target, etc.) in March, nine months before the new fiscal year begins. The cabinet would have to approve the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill and submit them to the Knesset before the House begins its summer recess.

Finally, the proposal, which Ben-Sasson's committee discussed in July, states that if the Knesset has not passed the budget by December 31, new elections would automatically be held three months later. Currently, the government has until March 31 to pass the budget, or three months into the new fiscal year. Ben-Sasson hopes that this provision will reduce MKs' ability to extort the government over passing the budget.

The Finance Ministry has agreed to submit the budget to the Knesset by the end of August, starting in 2009. But it fears that moving the deadline earlier than that would impede the process of preparing the budget.

Ben-Sasson's reform could certainly improve the quality of debate over the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill. Yet one question remains: Will MKs actually want to pore over details of the budget for months? Will they really bother to show up during the summer recess to discuss a reform of the poultry industry? Or will they simply go abroad as usual, and to hell with the budget's implications for the public?