Excusing the legislature
The Korean General Social Survey asks respondents every year about their trust and confidence in people and institutions. Among the dozens of institutions surveyed, including the government, civic groups, media, financial institutions, academia and umbrella unions, the National Assembly, never surprisingly, is always ranked at the bottom. The ranks for other institutions change from time to time, but it seems impossible for the National Assembly to catch up.
The 19th National Assembly, the term of which will soon end, has been evaluated as the “worst of the worst.” The deadlock between the ruling and opposition parties are a part of everyday affairs, and the administration does not hesitate to issue insults toward it. The National Assembly even failed to create a new electoral map, despite the deadline set years in advance by the Constitutional Court. It is no surprise that the people have no confidence in the legislative body.
The National Assembly has been a subject of constant media criticism and ridicule for such a long time that it seems easy to judge it. And it is actually interesting that no critic of the National Assembly has any expectation that it will ever get any better when they pass judgement.
The most common criticism is that the National Assembly is extremely inefficient, as described in many posts on social networking services and the Internet, and that the legislature actually gets nothing done. Such a view sees the National Assembly as the clear opposite of a professional, effective administrative institution.
Taking into account the widening and deepening scope of policies that the National Assembly has to deal with, the legislature, where 300 lawmakers - who are not experts - sit and discuss, appears to be a relic from a past generation. The administration, armed with strong leadership and systemic and professional officials, seems to be far more efficient.
But we must remember that the National Assembly is not after efficiency.
There is often a misunderstanding that the National Assembly works like a factory that procures laws, and that thinking is reflected in terms like “legislative productiveness” and “legislative efficiency.”
Conflicts exist in a society, and creating a law is like locating this conflict and performing a surgery on it. In most cases, a piece of legislation inevitably produces new winners and losers, and a new conflict is often created from it. Therefore, making a law is like conducting an extremely difficult surgery in a dark room without anesthesia. How can this be efficient, and how can this proceed quickly under pressure?
When a social conflict is not discovered and controlled properly, or when the concerned parties of a major conflict fail to speak to the government through the legislature, the political system becomes unstable and its democracy becomes unhealthy.
In this sense, we must understand that the legislature is containing a potential civil war inside the chamber. Political strife inside the legislature, therefore, is normal, and we must actually welcome this as a better alternative to outright civil war.
We also often criticize that the National Assembly and lawmakers are enjoying too much privilege. We often say that too much tax money, manpower and legal prerogative, as well as various rights, are wasted on them. Some lawmakers have used the monthly salaries of their aides as their political funds, and everyone seems to agree that it is a pity to use tax money in such a way. The ruling and opposition parties also continuously produce plans to give up their privileges, and the lawmakers themselves also admit that they enjoy too much special treatment.
And yet, I believe it is humiliating for the lawmakers to surrender their privileges. It seems like an embarrassing negotiation of a monthly salary with the voters. They seem to think their salaries can be frozen and their pensions can be cut in return for their poor legislative service.
Why are they saying that creating great laws requires expense accounts, aides and immunity from arrest? Why don’t they tell the voters they will use their privileges and resources to produce satisfactory legislation? I do not want an unpaid gentleman who sits around and does nothing as my representative.
I have no intention to excuse the incompetence and irregularity of our National Assembly. The long-continued irregularities and corruption must be eradicated, and all wrongdoings must be punished. That is common sense that everyone will agree with.
A more important matter is how we will end the vicious cycle of political abhorrence and indifference caused by irregularities and incompetence again leading to new irregularities and incompetence.
Good legislation requires patience and isn’t always cheap, but we must not give up on politics - no matter how disappointing and disgusting it gets. If we give up, the worst National Assembly will always be awaiting us for the next term.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 29, Page 31
*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Park Won-ho