[OUTLOOK]A checks-and-balances circus act

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[OUTLOOK]A checks-and-balances circus act

As the president presented letters of appointment to five new ministers and the head of the National Police Agency following the controversial National Assembly confirmation hearing, the month-long fuss over the ministerial appointments is finally over. The hearing was a meaningful event in our political history, for it was the first National Assembly hearing to confirm the appointments of cabinet members and the National Police Agency commissioner general. However, people are largely skeptical about the effectiveness of the system. The confirmation hearing for the public positions appointed by the president began in the United States. The founders of the U.S. Constitution established the system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judiciary branches as the fundamental principle of the presidential system and prepared various systematic devices to ensure the separation of powers. Among the features implemented to provide checks and balances, the Senate has the responsibility to give “advice and consent” on the president’s nomination for non-elected government positions.
In the more than 200 years of U.S. history, about two dozen nominees for cabinet and high ranking positions failed to win confirmation at the hearings, and about half of them voluntarily stepped down, with the rest being rejected by the Senate. While the hearings were rarely exploited as a tool for political strife, President Bill Clinton obtained the consent of the Senate for the appointment of Janet Reno as Attorney General after four nominees stepped down due to political attacks from the Republican Party. In the Bush administration, ambassador-designate John Bolton was politically attacked by the Democratic Party at the Senate hearing.
Although the hearings were sometimes exploited as a tool for political strife and as a means of making political deals, the function of checks and balances to the executive branch is not doubted. This is because the most important role of the hearings is to check and balance the executive and legislative branches.
By verifying the competency and ethics of the nominees for high public posts and providing new information to the citizens, the confirmation hearings contribute toward counterbalancing the power of the president and establishing a transparent political process. In that sense, the recent hearings over the nominated ministers failed to play their given role. Instead, they candidly displayed a fundamental characteristic of politics. Politics is very similar to a circus, where clowns perform on stage in front of spectators. To the citizens, politics can be, in a sense, a form of entertainment and spectacle, like actors scuffling with one another on stage. The politicians put on a performance in the arena of politics and are evaluated based on their records. The questions and answers exchanged between the assemblymen and the nominees at the confirmation hearings had all the features of a circus performance.
Through the course of the hearings, the assembly members disclosed all the legal and ethical issues about the nominees based on their past behaviors and speeches. The nominees under attack modestly and prudently clarified those suspicions and even said they repented of their past wrongdoings. In order to make a favorable impression, some nominees dressed up unusually nicely ― some even put on makeup. The hearings took only a few hours, and a questioner’s microphone was turned off when the questions exceeded the given time limit. The lawmakers raised all kinds of suspicions and the nominees gave ambiguous answers. The highlight of the circus was the result of the hearings, in which the ruling party members approved all the nominees and the opposition members found all the nominees to be unqualified.
While the opposition party members were determined to attack the nominees, they seemed uninterested in verifying and asking about their policy visions or competence as the heads of government agencies. Neither the assemblymen nor the nominees paid attention to how we should tackle the issues of unification, health and welfare, labor or science and technology, which are crucial to the survival and prosperity of the country. No citizen likes to watch politics if it presents a boring circus with few thrills.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at Kyunghee University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Ha-yong
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