What Are They Hiding?

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation can determine a bill's fate; the public has a right to know how its members vote.

Haaretz Editorial
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Nissan Slomiansky, right, and Naftali Bennett, of Habayit Hayehudi, Feb. 20, 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Haaretz Editorial

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is one of the government’s most important committees. It reviews all legislative proposals, whether sponsored by the government or individual MKs, and decides which bills the government will support and which it will oppose. Practically speaking, the panel has the power to determine a bill’s fate; if it opposes a bill, the coalition majority will automatically vote it down.

But despite the committee’s great importance, its activities are shrouded in secrecy. No detailed minutes are kept of its meetings, nor are the results of the votes recorded. There is no way to know which government minister supported or opposed which bill, and why. All that is publicized is the final vote, defined as the “government’s decision.”

Upon assuming her post, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni wanted to make the committee’s deliberations and votes transparent. She was told by the cabinet secretariat that such transparency could not be enshrined in legislation but would require changing the government work regulations. More than a year has passed since then, and nothing has been done.

Hatzlaha — the Consumers’ Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society and Economy, which has inquired about the fate of these changes, was told by the Prime Minister’s Office’s legal adviser, Shlomit Barnea-Farago, “The issue of publicizing the votes of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation has been debated several times in various forums, and the decision remains the same.” Barnea-Farago said the ministerial committee itself had rejected two bills on the matter (submitted by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and MK Orit Strock (HaBayit Hayehudi)) and has no plans to consider such a bill again. This, even though Barnea-Farago said a year ago that the cabinet is responsible for changing the policy.

The legislative process is meant to be open and transparent. Keeping the public in the dark undermines democracy and turns the ministerial committee into a political playing field to which pressure groups and interested parties have easy access. That is how worthy bills get dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with the public interest.

The scandal this week in the Knesset Finance Committee, with committee chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (HaBayit Hayehudi) bringing an addition of 888 million shekels ($258.1 million) to the Education Ministry’s budget to a vote without committee members knowing what they were voting on, strengthens the impression that government decision-making processes need oversight, for which transparency is a prerequisite. The prime minister’s stance against such transparency means that the public campaign demanding it must continue. The role of the opposition and the “moderate” ministers in the government, like those of Yesh Atid, is to make sure the public gets to see what it is that the prime minister is so eager to hide.