[Viewpoint] Lawmaker ethics a top priority

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[Viewpoint] Lawmaker ethics a top priority

Working in Washington as a correspondent, I read both Korean and American newspapers, and I sometimes get puzzled when I find almost the same articles in papers published in two different countries. Recently, I read an article on the controversial online fan site for Kim Kil-tae, who allegedly raped and killed a 13-year-old middle school girl in Busan earlier this year.

Then, just last week the U.S. state of Virginia executed a man charged with the murder and rape of a minor. The offender murdered a 16-year-old girl after a failed rape attempt and raped the victim’s 14-year-old sister three hours later. However, even the execution of the man responsible for the heinous crime led to debates.

Every day, both Korean and American newspapers run almost the same political articles, at least they seem so on the surface. The confrontations in the U.S. Congress over each and every bill are quite similar to the political structure of Korea.

Ever since President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the opposition Republican Party has gone against the administration on every bill without providing many alternatives. The two parties have confronted each other over bills on health care, climate change, job creation and more. The Republicans are united solidly against the ruling party and seek to find any fault with President Obama. The majority Democratic Party is almost equally pathetic and chaotic. The Democrats have always had divided opinions and suffered from an internal struggle.

So when handling the health care bill, their dispute made us wonder which is more intense: the discord within the majority party, or its struggle with the opposition party? The U.S. Democrats also adapted all kinds of sly political maneuvers. In order to pass the health care bill, the Democratic Party leaders looked into applying a clause that determines a vote without the lawmakers actually casting votes. Although such a sly move did not come to fruition, the Democrats’ detour attempt reminded me of “Yeouido politics.”

In 2008, the Americans elected an African-American president, and he moved the American people by crying out for unity in the United States, but such emotional moments are rare in real politics.

The problem is that the two countries are very different when it comes to points that should be similar. One such point is the respect for and strict compliance with laws and regulations.

Let’s look at the strict ethics code for public servants. The U.S. Congress prohibits politicians from receiving gifts over $50. It may sound unrealistic, but the rule was applied mercilessly to a powerful majority party congressman. The Ethics Committee found that Charles Rangel, a senior member of the House serving his 20th term, had received reimbursement from a communications company for expenses to attend a conference in the Caribbean. As a result, Rangel stepped down from the post of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The Ethics Committee is currently investigating seven more cases.

It is not just the Congress that applies such a strict code of conduct to politicians. In South Carolina, the governor was disgraced for having used a state-owned airplane for personal purposes. A female member of the New York state congress also resigned as the state’s ethics committee began an investigation into her use of inappropriate language with a male aide. Americans internally apply a strict yardstick to events that we might tolerate.

When a case is decided, the person involved follows the solemn decision quietly. So it is very rare in the United States for prosecutors to summon politicians over and over as is in Korea.

We, too, have a strict code of ethics and the ethics committee conducts investigations on alleged violations. However, the atmosphere looks completely different in America, compared to the leniency seen quite often in the National Assembly and local legislatures in Korea.

The operation of the Congress is also different. While the arguments over the health care bill divided national opinion, opposition politicians grudgingly acknowledged the decision made by the majority. While the entire Republican Party opposed the bill, they followed the legislative procedure set forth by law. Physical conflict and vacant seats in the hall could not be found.

As the special National Assembly session closed in February after fierce rounds of debate over the Sejong City project, many of the ruling and opposition lawmakers are rushing to travel abroad. Then, how about letting the National Assembly strictly apply ethics rules on minor issues first?

Looking at American politics, it occurred to me that the complicated Sejong City issue can also be resolved successfully only when the law is strictly respected by the lawmakers themselves. After all, isn’t it the National Assembly that made these laws and regulations?

*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


By Choi Sang-yeon
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