The Ministers Decide / How to Pound the Table

Ministers are incapable of making decisions, so they blame the bureaucrats. That is what outgoing Attorney General Menachem Mazuz charged yesterday during a seminar on law and governance at the Knesset. But is he right?

In the second half of the 1990s, the Finance Ministry's budget division opposed desalination with an almost ideological fervor. Treasury officials raised various objections, some of which have been heard again in recent days.

Then, in 1999, Avraham Shochat was appointed finance minister. He was familiar with the treasury from a previous stint as finance minister; he knew how to make decisions; and he was an engineer by training. He pounded on the table and said: we will have desalination. And today, we have desalination.

And Shochat, incidentally, never blamed any civil servant for the lack of desalination. He was the minister, he made the decisions, he was responsible. They were only advisers.

Then came the railways

In 1996-99, which was Benjamin Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, the treasury's budget division opposed intercity railways. It had some valid objections, as it did regarding desalination.

But the prime minister, along with his finance and transportation ministers, pounded on the table, and the railroad revolution was on its way. The ministers made the decisions; the civil servants' advice was rejected.

But that is not the whole story; public life produces many different types of situations. Sometimes the ministers and bureaucrats see eye to eye.

That was true, for instance, when Netanyahu was appointed finance minister in 2003: He and treasury professionals agreed that the public sector was too fat, and had to be trimmed; that national insurance and welfare payments were inflated, and must be cut; that pension savers should finance the pension funds' deficits.

When there's just no money

There are also many cases where the ministers and civil servants disagree, with neither side able to impose its will on the other. In some of these instances, as Mazuz implied, the country suffers - but in others, the failure to make a decision benefits the public.

There are even cases in which both the ministers and bureaucrats very much want to do something, but the treasury says there is no money - and not because that's what the treasury always says, but because there truly is no money in the budget to finance the project in question.