Bold decision to give up benefits hastens political reform
The 19th National Assembly begins its term on May 30 amid both expectations and concerns.
Expectations come from our hope that the newly elected representatives will perform their duties faithfully so people can live a peaceful and happy life. Concerns come from our nightmares with lawmakers, especially those from the 18th Assembly.
We remember that not a small number of lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties have been arrested or deprived of seats for corruption or other illegalities. Violence has always been a familiar scene in our political arena due to unyielding partisan confrontation. Rep. Kang Ki-kap of the now-defunct Democratic Labor Party (DLP) demonstrated his excellent martial art skills at the Assembly in January 2009 while staging a sit-in to block the passage of media-related bills. The DLP merged with two other progressive parties before the April 11 parliamentary elections to become the Unified Progressive Party.
In December 2008, Rep. Moon Hak-jin of the then main opposition Democratic Party used a hammer to break into an Assembly conference room in a scuffle over the passage of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. There was also a lawmaker who set off a tear gas canister inside the Assembly main chamber. He was re-elected on April 11.
Few would dispute that the 18th Assembly was infamous for inefficiency, negligence of duty and populism. More than 6,000 bills have been left unattended and will be automatically scrapped when the Assembly’s term ends on May 29. In a nutshell, the 18th Assembly is almost certain to go down as the worst ever in Korea’s political history.
In this vein, it would be meaningful if we look at how lawmakers, often referred to as the best job in the country, are treated. Sure, wealth, power and honor go with the position. Aside from privileges such as the constitutional right not to be arrested during a session, they are ensured of more than 200 privileges and benefits.
Their annual salary is nearly 120 million won. About 360 million won in taxpayers’ money is spent per annum for aides, including two interns, who help them in their work. Other benefits include 60 million won a year in subsidies for office space and other lawmaking activities and a monthly 1.1 million won in fuel subsidies. Lawmakers are able to ride airplanes and trains for free. More importantly, those who serve as a lawmaker even for a single day get a monthly pension of 1.2 million won after turning 65. Roughly 3.2 billion won is eaten up by a lawmaker during his or her four-year tenure.
Before the April 11 polls, a number of candidates promised to give up these privileges and benefits if they were elected but many of them lost. Political parties also pledged to remove many of these benefits but little has been done so far.
Few would disagree with the notion that the newly elected lawmakers will have to show completely different attitudes. If not, people’s mistrust in politics and politicians will be unrecoverable. One way to restore confidence in politics is for lawmakers to make a bold decision to forsake their vested privileges voluntarily.
Of course, privileges necessary to fulfill proper duties should remain intact. At a time when voter dissatisfaction with politicians is increasing in the midst of economic hardship, their bold decision could serve as a humble but valuable milestone to reform the political landscape.