Seniority culture harms Assembly

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Seniority culture harms Assembly

The culture of enthroning committee chairmanships in the legislature based on seniority has caused low productivity and a lack of professionalism in the National Assembly, a recent analysis by a political party and university showed.

Mun Myeong-hak, policy director of the Minjoo Party of Korea, and Lee Hyun-woo, political science professor of Sogang University, jointly authored a paper and published it on the Journal of Legislative Studies, a publication of the Korean Institute of Legislative Studies. In the research, they analyzed 131 lawmakers of the conservative Saenuri Party and the liberal Minjoo Party who chaired the standing committees during the 17th, 18th and 19th National Assemblies. The 17th National Assembly began its four-year term in 2004, and the 19th National Assembly will complete its term on Sunday.

According to their analysis, being a three-term lawmaker was an absolute prerequisite for a Saenuri lawmaker to chair a standing committee. Among the 76 Saenuri chairmen and women, 61 were three-term lawmakers.

During the 17th National Assembly, Choi Byung-gook chaired the Legislation and Judiciary Committee as a two-term lawmaker, and during the 19th National Assembly, three two-term lawmakers chaired standing committees, including the powerful National Intelligence Committee. But the paper said they were able to do so because the party did not have enough three-term lawmakers at the time.

In the 17th National Assembly, two first-term lawmakers, Kim Ae-sil and Moon Hee, chaired the Gender Equality and Family Committee, but they were given special treatment for being women.

The seniority was even more rigidly applied in the Minjoo Party, the paper said. The party respected not only the number of reelected terms but also looked at age in selecting lawmakers to chair committees.

Among the 55 Minjoo lawmakers who chaired standing committees, 30 were three-term lawmakers and 20 were second-term lawmakers.

The Saenuri Party, Moon said, “is entitled to more committee chairmanships, and its senior lawmakers also have many other places to go such as cabinet ministers. But there were a limited numbers of titles [for the Minjoo Party],” he added, “so it strictly respected the number of reelected terms and ages. The Minjoo Party never decided who will chair a committee through a primary, because the seniority-based order was extremely important.”

And it is precisely such a political culture that has largely curtailed the productivity and expertise of committee chairmen and chairwomen, the paper said. Lawmakers often chaired committees that were irrelevant with their experiences and specialties; only 20 Saenuri committee heads and 16 Minjoo committee heads had served the committees they chaired immediately before their selections.

In other words, about 70 percent of the committee chairmen were previously members of different committees. For example, Rep. Chung Doo-un, who was serving the Trade, Industry and Energy Committee, was then selected to chair the National Defense Committee during the 19th National Assembly.

After their terms ended, only nine Saenuri chairmen and four Minjoo chairmen decided to stay with their committees.

“When the lawmakers change their committees frequently and when they lack their expertise,” Professor Lee said, “the National Assembly’s power to check on the administration will inevitably weaken.”

Although the role of standing committee chairmen is crucial in legislative activities, the seniority-based system has created an obstacle for lawmakers to build up their careers and expertise.

Senior lawmakers often prefer chairing committees that are advantageous in pushing forward pork-barreling projects such as the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Committee, the Education, Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee and the Trade, Industry and Energy Committee.

Only a few lawmakers serve the same committee long enough to become experts. Saenuri’s Lee Hye-hoon, who served the Strategy and Finance Committee for eight years, and Ahn Gyu-baek of the Minjoo Party, who served the Defense Committee for eight years, were two known rare examples of this.

BY PARK YU-MI [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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