[OUTLOOK]Assembly needs more researchersThe special National Assembly session that opened on Wednesday meets to prepare for the launching of the new government. The confirmation hearings for the prime minister nominee will be held; the session will also be the first to be conducted under the new National Assembly Act passed last month. Because I worked for the revision of the laws regulating the Assembly's procedures ever since I took over the speaker's office half a year ago, I am looking forward to this session with great anticipation. In the past, a cabinet minister testifying before the Assembly would address a group of questions from many lawmakers. That has long been an issue of heated arguments in the Assembly, and those interpellations will now be conducted in a single-question, single-answer format.
I hope that the new interpellation procedures, along with the new requirement that transcripts of Assembly proceedings be published without editing will be enough to prevent the harsh words and profanity that have sometimes marked the Assembly's proceedings. Another point of interest to follow is how the Assembly's right to ask for inspections by the Board of Audit and Inspection will be carried out.
With the National Assembly Act revisions in place, I am focusing most of my attention on the establishment of a research institute run by the Assembly. The procedural reforms and giving the Assembly more research capabilities are the two pillars of my National Assembly reforms. If the procedural revisions are road construction, the institute is the repair of the cards on that road. The public often rebukes National Assembly members for a lack of capability, but it is difficult to expect detailed professional expertise from legislators selected through elections. In addition, the national budget of over 100 trillion won ($85 billion) is enough to daunt even accounting professionals with its jumble of numbers and items. And the National Assembly is obliged to pass such a bill in a matter of days. The settlement of accounts is supposed to take even less time than budget consideration. Although laws have been revised to make the administration responsible for the accuracy of the accounts, it is my honest opinion that this accountability means little under the present system.
In fact, the Assembly's most important function, that of controlling national finances, is not being performed very well. The government is using the people's tax money with few restraints, and we are unable to call the administration to account even when there are major problems in the use of funds. With all the personnel, information and data available to the administration, the National Assembly is badly outgunned. This is where the National Assembly Research Institute fits in. The bill to set up such an institute, now being reviewed, calls for a minimum of 50 researchers with relevant training to watch over the budget process 365 days a year and report their findings to the National Assembly. If the bill is passed, it would be a great help to the legislators who at present have only a staff of two and limited access to information in their scrutiny of the mammoth administrative branch.
In the United States, the Congressional Budget Office has more than 230 employees. Over 70 percent of the employees have at least a master's degree in economics or public policy. The Congressional Research Service, famous worldwide for its data-collecting capabilities, supports the legislative activities of the Congress with its 700 personnel and databases that reportedly surpass those of the Central Intelligence Agency in some areas.
In contrast, the only legislative support the National Assembly can rely on comes from the advisory office of the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts, the budget policy bureau of the Secretariat and the National Assembly Library, a force consisting of less than 60 personnel in total. Ten out of the 12 members of the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts were hospitalized for fatigue after the last regular session. The administration, in contrast, has over 290 employees working for the Ministry of Planning and Budget and over 46 research institutes.
It is unfair to blame the National Assembly for incompetence under such circumstances. Much more is needed from the National Assembly to effectively supervise the government budget, but this is not because of an unwillingness to try. If the research institute is established, the Assembly's capabilities will be upgraded. I guarantee it. The institute will benefit the National Assembly members in the first instance, but the ultimate winners will be the people.
* The writer is the speaker of the National Assembly.
by Park Kwan-yong
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