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So few MKs, so much to do: The Knesset is dysfunctional

Lawmakers sit on too many committees and propose too many laws. The fix starts with government members quitting the Knesset

Now that the elections are over, the makeup of the 21st Knesset has become clear, with almost fifty first-time MKs.

How will this change in the Knesset’s makeup affect its functioning? Even if we assume that the new MKs are motivated to work hard and to making an impact, and that all the MKs are talented, diligent and imbued with a sense of public service, the chances of their functioning to the best of their ability are not high. The reason for this is rooted, to a great extent, in structural and procedural shortcomings connected to the size of the Knesset and its working methods.

The Knesset is the smallest unicameral parliament in the democratic world. In the first Knesset — when Israel’s population numbered 600,000 — there were 120 MKs. Despite a tenfold increase in the country’s population, the number of MKs has remained unchanged. Concurrently, the size of the government has grown over the years. In 2009, Netanyahu formed a government numbering almost 40 members (ministers and deputy ministers). His current government numbered between 26-30 members during its term. This state of affairs has a negative impact on the Knesset, and in particular on the Knesset committees’ ability to serve as watchdogs over the government. Only three quarters of the MKs are eligible for seats on Knesset committees, since government ministers are not permitted to hold such a position.

The number of positions available on Knesset committees is more than double the number of MKs who are eligible to take up these positions, and as a result MKs are forced to sit on two three committees on average. If they are members of the coalition, they will have to sit on even more committees in order to preserve the coalition majority on each committee. The outcome of this situation is poor attendance at committee sessions, as a norm. In addition, the issues that the committees deal with are often relevant to several ministries, making it difficult for committee members to develop expertise in all the issues under discussion.

The additional supervisory tools available to the Knesset — in particular parliamentary questions and motions for the agenda are not effective. While the Knesset is weak in functioning as a watchdog, it is extremely active as a legislative body. In the past two decades, more than 26,000 private member bills were submitted, a number unrivalled in any other democracy. This trend was seen even more keenly in the 20th Knesset, during which MKs submitted 6,000 private member bills, only 233 of which were passed into law. While it is true that private legislation may have some value, in practice, the vast majority of the bills are submitted with very little forethought and seem to be aimed solely in order to draw media attention to the submitter.

We propose a comprehensive reform of the Knesset’s work so that the new and veteran MKs of the 21st Knesset will be able to fulfill their public duty in a fitting way.

One possibility is to improve the Knesset’s supervision of the government by increasing the pool of MKs available for parliamentary work. To achieve this, we propose that the full version of the Norwegian Law be passed, which would require members of the government to resign from the Knesset, with their seat being taken by the next candidate on the party’s list.

In addition, we propose reducing the number of MKs sitting on each committee, and adding an extra working day for the committees, thus preventing a situation in which coalition MKs sit on 4-5 committees simultaneously and have no time for in-depth study of the issues under discussion.

We also propose that each parliamentary committee be linked to one or two government ministries as a means for increasing the committees’ professionalism.

As well as reinforcing the Knesset’s supervisory ability as a watchdog, we also recommend limiting the number of private member bills that MKs are permitted to submit. This would enable them to concentrate on proposing a few high-quality bills per year that have a realistic chance of actually passing into law and having a beneficial effect on our lives, instead on wasting their time on futile proposals that have no chance at all of progressing toward legislation.

Elections are vital in democracies. However, optimal functioning of the elected body in between elections is no less important for its stability and resilience. In order to make the Knesset’s legislative and supervisory work more efficient and balanced, we recommend implementing a comprehensive overhaul of its work. Implementation of these reforms will strengthen the Knesset and improve its public image for the benefit of all Israel’s citizens.

About the Author
Dr. Chen Friedberg is a fellow research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer at Ariel University.
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