Reinventing confirmation hearings
The author is the deputy director of national news at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Congressional hearings often create celebrities. Mostly the committee members who inquire into corruption allegations become stars, but sometimes the figure who is called to testify becomes famous. Oliver North, who was summoned to testify before the congressional hearing on the Iran-Contra affair, is a notable example. That was a case of illegal sales of weapons to Iran, which the United States had designated a terrorist state, to use the proceeds from the arms sales to support an anti-government group in Nicaragua. Even impeachment articles of then-President Ronald Reagan were introduced over the Iran-Contra scandal.
Congress summoned North, a lieutenant-colonel and National Security Council staff member, to testify on the issue. The handsome officer came to the hearing in a sharp uniform and defended the government policy and himself with a determined attitude. The public raved over him. Time magazine even described him as a “superstar.” North later unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat. In 2018, he became the president of the National Rifle Association, a prominent American interest group.
In Korea, the unarguable superstar of hearings is former President Roh Moo-hyun. At the hearings on corruption in the Fifth Republic in November 1988, the first-time lawmaker became a national hero at once. Roh asked sharp questions and overwhelmed Chang Se-dong, former National Intelligence Service director and one of the most powerful figures of the Fifth Republic. Conglomerate owners, including Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Ju-yung, also could not escape his pointed inquiries.
The National Assembly held confirmation hearings on four nominees for government ministers last week. Out of the four, the opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s attacks were focused on Land Minister nominee Byeon Chang-heum. At first, the confirmation hearing was expected to deal with his policies as the minister. But Byeon cannot avoid ethical criticism over his remarks about a young contract worker who died in a Seoul subway station while fixing a platform door, not to mention his derogatory comments about working-class people.
The PPP is demanding his resignation. But the dominant outlook is that President Moon Jae-in will nevertheless appoint him. Until now, most appointments have been made without adopting a hearing report. As a result, some say confirmation hearings are useless. Candidates only need to bear the heated hearing process. But they must show sincerity. Byeon visited a rally of industrial disaster victims’ families the day before the hearing and apologized to the families. He wanted to apologize directly to Kim’s family, but it didn’t work out, so he made a roundabout apology. I cannot help suspecting his true intention.
The ruling and opposition parties are working on revising the confirmation hearing system to make character verification behind closed doors, while verifying policy competency in public. Last month, the long-debated issue reached an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties as “confirmation hearings often lead to personal attacks and privacy exposures and make it hard for a competent person to be promoted.”
If things work out, the two-track hearing could be ideal. But considering the current state of the hearings, it would amount to a setback. The personality verification that is somewhat functioning now is likely to be disabled. Confirmation hearings have successfully exposed nominees faking addresses for certain purposes, and engaging in real estate speculation, tax evasion and plagiarism. Making ethical verification confidential makes me wonder if they want to cover up for each other.
In the United States, the White House oversees verification processes before the president sends high-level officials to the Senate for approval. More than 1,000 positions require Senate confirmation. Confirmation includes reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. In Korea, the Blue House orders professional groups from the police, National Tax Service and Financial Supervisory Service to verify candidates, but the process is not on par with that of the U.S. Allegations often arise involving candidates who have passed Blue House verification.
Before establishing a two-track verification system for ethics and policy competency, a more detailed and rigorous preliminary verification system is needed. Land Minister nominee Byeon made remarks that contradict the president’s administrative philosophy that puts people first, and it shows how loose our current verification system is. It is hard to punish candidates for providing incomplete documents or making false statements at the hearing. Recently, a revision to the Confirmation Hearing Act was suggested to prevent candidates from making false testimony and refusing to provide documents.
Also, more offices should be confirmed with hearings. When the administration changes, those who contributed to the election campaign are often appointed to the heads of public agencies or corporations. They may seem like trophies to the new administration, but each of these positions is important for state administration.
People increasingly criticize confirmation hearings for having turned into a sideshow for the government. It would be great to prove otherwise with Byeon’s hearing.