Keep legislators home

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Keep legislators home

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle vowed to repent and reform themselves following the presidential election in December. But they broke their oath before the ink had time to dry. The budget bill was later than ever before and was passed on New Year’s day. After their work was done, nine key members of the budget committee jumped on planes for foreign junkets to Central America and Africa for so-called “research” trips. Three of them cut their trips short and returned home shamefaced over the weekend. They were caught in the glare of the spotlight because their timing was truly atrocious. But many legislators are enjoying winter breaks abroad at this moment. It is time that we scrutinize the overseas trips of our legislators.

The legislators earmarked over 8 billion won ($7.53 million) this year to fund overseas trips for National Assembly members going on diplomatic tours or attending international conferences. Lawmakers usually make their trips paid for through the public purse during their four-year terms.

Their trips evoke sneers because relatively little work is actually achieved and they travel in comfort and style. They use VIP rooms and are seated in business class or first class on the plane. Once they land, they are greeted and fully cared for by our envoys stationed in those foreign lands, who ferry them around and act as free tour guides. Their official work - visits to government offices or legislatures or attending gabfest conferences - is short and hardly back-breaking. The remainder of their time abroad is spent on tourism, entertaining, eating and drinking. In the past legislators grabbed money for trips abroad from both government officials and corporate heads, although that practice has diminished.

Foreign junkets should be brought back to basics. Most trips should be cut except for ones necessary for legislative diplomacy, international exchanges or important conferences. In the 1960s and 1970s, we may have needed to fund legislators’ overseas trips to let them learn about the outside world. Those days are long gone.

But who will judge which trips are necessary? We can hardly expect fair decisions from the legislators themselves. Lawmakers have not kept promises to cut their spending and pensions in the budget review. So we need an outside auditing body to review overseas trips. A group of private experts under the house speaker could take on the job. Korea has sponsored a G-20 summit conference and hosts many major international conferences each year. It is a disgrace to the assembly that its members’ foreign junkets still raise controversy.
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