According to the Haaretz-Dialog public opinion survey, published in today's paper, one of every two Israelis thinks the current Knesset is worse than its predecessors. Only one in seven thinks it's better. The public's confidence in the Knesset is especially low. The voters view the members of the Knesset as dishonest and as indifferent to the economic situation of the country's citizens. The speakers of the Knesset in the past few terms have pondered how to improve the status of the legislative branch, but things are only getting worse.
In fact, it would be possible to foment a change with the aid of a few simple but brave decisions, most of which would oblige the MKs to work harder and spend more time in the House. It's hard to understand, for example, why MKs work only three days a week, from Monday through Wednesday. As a result of this amazingly short workweek, the Knesset sits for no more than 100 to 120 days a year (excluding sessions during recesses). Even if the MKs workweek was extended by only one day, they would still enjoy a relatively cushy job, working on average 12 days a month.
Those who are knowledgeable about the workings of the Knesset know that most of the work is done in the committees, where the laws are drafted and supervision - such as it is - over the executive branch is effected. Indeed, the MKs almost always explain the images of the empty plenum by claiming they are busy in the committees. The truth, though, is that attendance at the committees is negligible, and in many cases the only MK who turns up is the committee chairman. One reason for this is that MKs are members of many committees and the meetings take place at the same time. Designating Thursday as an additional workday would make it possible to spread out the committee sessions and thus upgrade the MKs' attendance.
However, the short workweek is not the only cause of the frustrating feeling among the public that its elected representatives aren't working enough. Another factor is the lengthy recesses. The current winter recess lasted five weeks; two weeks, including Pesach, would have been plenty. Nor is there any reason why the summer recess, which ends after the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot), should start at the end of July rather than in the middle of August.
A contributing factor to the problem of poor attendance at the committee meetings is the large number of committees - there are some 20 committees and 70 subcommittees - and the large number of members on each one (for example, the House Committee has no fewer than 21 members). The reason for the multiplicity of committees is not their singular contribution to the Israeli regime but the need to create chair positions for MKs who were not appointed ministers or deputy ministers. The attempt by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) to abolish several of the committees encountered serious resistance. The reason for the large number of MKs on the committee is, of course, the desire of many MKs to be members of the important and prestigious committees. Limiting the number of committees (12 would appear to be a reasonable number) and the membership of each would create a situation in which MKs would not be members of more than two committees.
The situation in which laws are sometimes passed in the Knesset plenum by a vote of 2-1 is intolerable. The same applies to sessions that are held in the presence of the speaker and one MK who speaks to an otherwise empty chamber. The embarrassing situation of an empty chamber and empty committee rooms will only be heightened when the broadcasts of the Knesset television channel begin. A quorum of 20 MKs should be set for holding plenum sessions. This can be done by means of rotation among the MKs. In the absence of a quorum, plenum sessions would not take place and legislation would not be enacted. A quorum of five MKs should be set for the committees.
It's not by chance that the possibility of slashing the salaries of MKs has not been mentioned here. In fact, their salary is too low compared with the responsibility entrusted to them. The problem doesn't lie with the salary but with the quid pro quo, and that has to be improved.
On the other hand, it would definitely be useful to set an effective mechanism of fines for MKs who don't work. The situation today is that an MK has his pay docked only if he is absent for more than a third of the days on which sessions are held. In other words, of 120 workdays a year, an MK can be absent for 40 days. Even those who miss more than 40 days can present various excuses to the Ethics Committee in the hope of getting the fine revoked.
The number of absent days should be reduced to 20 percent of the workdays, and MKs should be made to be present for at least four hours a day when they do appear (not an overly long workday by any stretch). The Ethics Committee should be removed from the picture. MKs should have to abide by the situation in the labor market, where employees who are sick or are called up to reserve duty must submit confirmations. The others will have their salaries cut automatically.
All these proposals will not erase the stain of the elections in the Likud Central Committee (two-thirds of the public believe organized crime has infiltrated the Knesset), nor can they replace the practice of self-restraint by MKs (three of every five respondents in the poll think the coarse language used by MKs brings disgrace on the Knesset). Still, these proposals might mitigate the feeling among the public to the effect that the Knesset consists of a bunch of freeloaders who function as a combined country club and consumer club. The public may even be persuaded that its elected representatives sometimes even work for its benefit.
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