[Viewpoint] Exercising the Assembly speaker’s rightThe National Assembly finally ratified the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. It took more than four years since it was first introduced during the Roh Moo-hyun administration and was renegotiated further. Now, the time has come to evaluate the ratification process.
It took a long time and much deliberation for this FTA to pass. According to poll results, the majority of people think the FTA is in our nation’s best interest and that it would have been desirable and natural for the ruling and opposition parties to agree to ratify it peacefully.
The National Assembly, however, failed to function properly. The Democratic and Democratic Labor parties blocked the proper handling of the ratification bill. The opposition parties not only opposed the ratification, but also rejected a floor vote. The opposition made unrealistic demands. It tried to block the ratification physically, and, as a result, the National Assembly speaker directly introduced the bill to the plenary session on Tuesday in which the Grand National Party unilaterally voted for ratification.
Now, a question remains about whether the direct introduction of the ratification bill was legitimate.
A National Assembly is a representative body with members who should develop agreements through dialogue and compromise that represent the nation’s various interests. The FTA ratification bill should have been approved in the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee, sent to the plenary session for debate, and put to a vote on the floor. And yet, the opposition parties’ protests blocked the committee from having discussions.
So what options are there to resolve such confrontation? Lawmakers should look to the National Assembly Act, Article 85 of which provides a resolution. When a committee fails to properly consider an important national matter, the National Assembly speaker is given the right to hold a floor vote as a last resort.
The speaker may designate a certain amount of time for bills to be considered in committees, according to the article, and should consideration take an unreasonable amount of time, the speaker may refer a bill to another committee or bring it directly to a plenary session for a vote.
An Assembly speaker has the responsibility and the right to manage the operation of the legislature and so has this powerful option. It has the potential to move contentious issues forward, but it must be emphasized that this option is an exceptional measure to be taken only when an urgent bill is not handled properly at the committee level. It must be employed with extreme caution because it skips much of the legislative process designed to ensure that the people’s opinion matters. The speaker should only exercise this right when exceptional conditions justify the need for a speedy resolution of an issue.
For the Korea-U.S. FTA ratification bill, it was unavoidable for the speaker to use his power to skip the committee process. The FTA was pushed forward by the Roh and Lee Myung-bak administrations, so there was already enough discussion and evaluation of the trade deal. The floor leaders of the ruling and opposition parties have tried patiently to come up with a compromise despite harsh criticism from hardliners, who steadfastly opposed the deal no matter what the costs. It is also significant that more moderate lawmakers from both parties also put in their own efforts to reach a compromise.
In addition, the president also visited the National Assembly and promised to renegotiate the opposition parties’ demand on the investor-state dispute settlement provision with the United States after the pact takes effect. The U.S. Congress had already approved the FTA.
And yet, though the trade pact was urgent and enormous efforts were put forth in an attempt to reach a compromise, the opposition parties would not budge. Given the deadlock, the speaker had no choice but to introduce the bill directly for a floor vote. Through their actions, the opposition parties basically demanded that the ruling party move to a unilateral floor vote on the issue.
So despite discussion of the speaker’s actions, the Korea-U.S. FTA ratification will be recorded as an effective use of the speaker’s special right amidst the gloomy reality of a legislature that fails to operate properly and reach a compromise.
*The writer is a professor of law at Hongik University.
By Lim Jong-hoon