[Viewpoint] A legislature to rememberThe incumbent 18th National Assembly has only four days left of its 1,460-day term. The outgoing legislature has been criticized as the worst ever. But that blanket condemnation is not entirely fair.
The public has become intimately acquainted with various aspects of individual lawmakers thanks to some staggeringly ingenious performances. Their physical performances have been particularly outstanding. It was an area we didn’t know much about our lawmakers whom we normally looked to for intelligence and virtue.
The legislature kept up the gentlemanly standard of restricting physical contests to representatives of the same gender. The out-of-the-ring boxing match between the ruling party’s Representative Kim Sung-hoi and the main opposition party’s Representative Kang Gi-jung was quite impressive even for amateur players in view of the strength of jabs the two exchanged and the bloody bruises they inflicted. Female representatives proved they have kept up their physiques, with senior members aged over 50 capable of toppling their younger peers with stunning skills in hair-grabbing and kicking.
Secondly, the members of the incumbent legislature broke the hierarchical barriers among contestants. In the past, legislators took on legislators while aides battled with aides. But in this round, aides were allowed to throw punches at legislators. The Democratic United Party’s famous slugger Kang practiced his techniques on security guards and journalists as well.
The legislature became much relaxed on restrictions on battle weapons. “Anything you can get your hands on” was the new rule of thumb, and a sledgehammer, electric saw and fire extinguisher were put to accomplished use to batter down doors and bust up other facilities. But the grand prize, which made international headlines, goes to the opposition party member who set off a tear gas grenade in the chamber to demonstrate his reasoned objections to a free trade deal with the United States.
As the contests evolved so did their boldness, scale and aggressiveness in the art of protest. Camping out became a habit and 10 days braving the elements is now a breeze for opposition party members. When they were pulled out of the National Assembly in the end, they made the usual scene with arms flailing and loud complaining of being treated like dogs. The guards carried out their jobs with sangfroid.
The Assembly underwent renovations to prevent novel use of facilities by lawmakers. Modern adaptations were applied so that windows and doors can serve their primary function.
Despite their outstanding performance in physical feats, lawmakers nevertheless kept up with their work. They were 80 days late in opening sessions, but worked laboriously to pass a record 14,761 bills, sharply higher than the 6,300 ratified by the 17th Assembly. Some were so committed that they actually passed bills that could have been killed after the April 11 legislative election.
The Assembly earns credit for lowering the prices of wine by passing free trade deals. They also passed a law to prevent physical violence in the Assembly, and in concern for public safety, they passed a law allowing police to locate crime victims through their cell phones without prior consent. Some of their work, in fact, was serious.
In budget reviews, the 18th class would score high for painstaking scrutiny. Since the fiscal budget accounting guidelines were set in 1961, this Assembly was first to review the budget before the last minute - 11:27 p.m. on December 31. It not only kept up the nine-consecutive year record of scorning the constitutional deadline of Dec. 2 to pass the budget, but also added a dramatic twist to the otherwise annual run-of-the-mill ritual.
The House speaker also made the history books. Park Hee-tae resigned and became the first speaker to be summoned by prosecutors on bribery charges while in office. The ever-inventive Assembly, however, carried on its business with the speaker’s chair empty. One U.S. foreign affairs magazine skeptically rated the Korea’s National Assembly as top in its class for violence, beating the previous champion, Taiwan.
The 18th class was as scrupulous about their individual futures as their dedication to their seats. Of 300 incoming members of 19th Assembly, 115 are from the previous term. Those who exited were replaced by “upgraded” individuals. One opposition party and newly elected members already have been making news with some previews of illegalities and violence even before the curtain has gone up on the new Assembly.
One thing is for sure. The 18th Assembly left such a poor precedent that no legislature can do worse.
* The author is deputy editor of political and international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae