Perks for Assemblymen add up to second salaryAhead of last year’s presidential election, lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties made grand pledges to renounce the unfair privileges they have enjoyed for decades.
And in fact they did give up some perks, including a generous pension system and the right to hold lucrative side jobs while serving in the Assembly. They also voted to increase penalties for legislators who resort to violence to protest the passing of bills, a Korean legislative tradition.
But some promises were broken, including one to cut their salaries by 30 percent. And some perks were reinforced, as an analysis into the lawmakers’ uses of their privileges and benefits shows.
One of the big but lesser known perks for lawmakers is overseas travel. When lawmakers travel overseas in groups for work related to their standing committees, up to $389 in daily lodging expenses are paid and up to $160 per day for transportation costs. In addition, a lawmaker receives a $50 per diem during a trip.
The money comes from the standing committee budget and the standard of travel expenses is set at the level of business travel for a vice minister.
In addition, so-called travel expenses or pocket money, which is almost always given by the National Assembly speaker, party chairman or floor leader, remain unchanged. And local travel expenses are customarily paid by Korea’s diplomatic missions or companies there.
“When a lawmaker goes overseas, he has no reason to open his wallet,” said a National Assembly official. “Their per diems are often collected and given to workers at the diplomatic missions as a gift, but it is still true that a lawmaker does not spend a penny for the trip.”
There are many more obscure perks given to lawmakers. Getting paid to be on a committee is one.
“There are many veteran lawmakers with multiple terms, but the number of posts to head standing committees is limited,” said a Saenuri lawmaker. “So sometimes a special committee is created to give respectful treatment to senior lawmakers.”
The money paid for sitting on a special committee is a bonus to a lawmaker’s salary.
In July 2012, a special committee to investigate the government’s illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens was created. After having an initial meeting to select Saenuri Representative Shim Jae-chul as its chairman, the committee never held another meeting with all of its members. But last year alone, the committee received a budget of 30.77 million won ($28,827). It was divided among the 18 committee members. Each lawmaker received an average of 1.7 million won for doing nothing.
Three special committees on judicial, budget and political reform concluded their activities in September. The three committees held an average of 7.3 meetings, but they spent a total of 108 million won.
The ruling and opposition parties competed with plans to cut lawmakers salaries last year. Then they walked away from the idea - and decided to give themselves raises instead.
On the eve of last December’s presidential election, all lawmakers of the Democratic Party signed a bill to cut representatives’ salaries by 30 percent on Dec. 3, 2012. Representative Lee Hahn-koo, then-floor leader of the Saenuri Party, promised three days later that the ruling party would also participate in the Democrats’ move and implement it immediately.
But after the presidential election, the lawmakers managed to quietly raise their salaries. The annual salary of a lawmaker in the 19th National Assembly was increased to 137.96 million won, up by about 20 percent from the 114 million won received in the 18th National Assembly.
Lawmakers also receive various stipends for gasoline costs and car maintenance expenses, family allowances, tuitions for children and holiday bonuses. “A lawmaker will probably receive an additional 100 million won when you add up all the stipends,” said Kim Ki-rin, political affairs chief of the civic group Citizens United for Better Society.
And lawmakers still continue the uniquely Korean practice of raising political funds through book-publishing events. Companies and government agencies buy books published by lawmakers en masse, sometimes paying 100,000 won per volume.
Few lawmakers have shown much interest in campaigning against the practice. As the saying goes, criticism only lasts a second, but the money from the book publishing events goes on for years.
There are other privileges lawmakers enjoy that can’t be priced, such as immunity from arrest and free use of public transportation, including trains and ships. In total, a lawmaker enjoys about 200 privileges and benefits, but the ruling and opposition parties managed to give up only three by last July.
Bills aimed at curtailing lawmakers’ immunity from arrest, introducing a “no-work, no-pay” system for when lawmakers fail to hold voting sessions, and cutting salaries by 30 percent are still pending at the National Assembly.
“It’s hard for them to give up the privileges,” said Sohn Byoung-kwon, a political science professor of Chung-Ang University. “Unless there is a critical moment, such as an election, it is difficult for them to surrender their benefits voluntarily.”
The National Assembly Secretariat defended the lawmakers, claiming Korean representatives do not enjoy unreasonably high pay or unfair privileges compared to legislators of other advanced countries.
In a booklet published Thursday, the legislature also said the lawmakers’ privileges such as immunity from arrest guarantee their legislative rights under the principle of separation of powers and it is wrong to treat that as a simple perk.
The secretariat said the salary of a Korean lawmaker is lower than that in Japan, Germany and the United States, while higher than that in France or Britain.
Each lawmaker also receives 90.1 million won annually for operational stipends to manage an office and for business travel, the booklet said.
BY KIM KYUNG-JIN, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]