Food regimen members’ allowances nonetheless being spent with no checks

A woman who works for an insurance company bought a train ticket at Tokyo Station and, as is her custom, pressed the button on the machine to receive a receipt.

“I claim my expenses even in units of 10 yen,” the 32-year-old said. “Those who can keep what’s left of 1 million yen ($7,800) paid in advance will never understand the lives of common people.”

She was referring to the 1 million yen in monthly allowances given to each Diet member.

The allowances are supposed to cover transportation, communication and miscellaneous accommodation expenses, but the lawmakers are not required to submit receipts or disclose details of the expenditures.

And they do not have to return the unused portions of the tax-exempt allowances.

In response to calls for transparency, ruling and opposition parties had said they would reach a conclusion by the end of the current Diet session to require lawmakers to disclose details of the expenses and to return unused portions to state coffers.

But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said during a Lower House Budget Committee session on May 27 that he was against setting a deadline for a conclusion on the allowances.

The current Diet session is scheduled to close on June 15, and it appears that talks on the allowance issue will be put on the backburner.

Known as “buntsu-hi” for short, the allowances are paid to each lawmaker on top of their average monthly salary of 1.294 million yen.

The automatic payments of the allowances sparked controversy after the Lower House election in October last year.

A rookie lawmaker noted that the Lower House was dissolved ahead of that election, meaning that the politicians in the Diet chamber were lawmakers for only one day in October. But they were still paid the full 1-million-yen allowance for the month.

The Diet passed a bill in April to revise the relevant law and pay the allowances on a per diem basis.

But the legislation did not touch upon lawmakers’ accountability in spending the taxpayers’ money.

In the private sector, corporate workers generally pay for business expenses with their own money and later apply for reimbursements from their companies by providing receipts.

Hiroaki Urano, a certified tax accountant and a former professor at Rissho University, said the lawmakers’ buntsu-hi allowances should be handled like the corporate business expenses.

He said the way things stand now, lawmakers have essentially given themselves free rein to pay for things that would not be recognized as expenses for company employees.

“What matters is how (the allowances) are actually used,” Urano said. “Under the current circumstances, where we have absolutely no idea (how the money is spent), it is impossible to win understanding from the public.

“Disclosure that serves as a basis for discussion must come first.”

Under the Corporate Tax Law and Income Tax Law, business operators and sole proprietors are required to keep receipts for five to seven years, in principle.

But some Diet members have said it would be troublesome to keep records for the expenses from the allowances.

“It is unacceptable for lawmakers to say it is ‘annoying’ when all other workers accept it as a natural responsibility,” Urano said.

For example, a 28-year-old sales representative of a food producer in mid-April carefully placed a receipt into a pocket of his wallet after buying a Shinkansen ticket at Tokyo Station.

“I can’t claim the expense for it if I lose it,” he mumbled.

During a fund-raising party in April, Lower House Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda inadvertently highlighted the gap between lawmakers and the public.

“Even as the speaker, I am receiving only 1 million yen in monthly pay,” he said, drawing an outpouring of criticism on social media.

The current allowance stemmed from perks introduced in 1947: a monthly allowance of 125 yen for communication expenses and 40 yen per day for miscellaneous accommodation expenses.

The two types of allowances underwent a series of changes in name and amounts, and eventually entitled Diet members to 1 million yen per month in 1993.

Legislators are also provided with a Japan Railway pass that allows them to board any JR train for free, in addition to round-trip air tickets between Tokyo and their constituencies.

(This article was written by Takashi Togo and Yoshitaka Ito, a senior staff writer.)