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[Editorial] Pork barrel

If a person wishes to succeed as a politician, one of the first things he needs to do is appeal to the concerns of those who have elected him into public office and convince them that he has their best interests at heart. Few can afford to ignore their concerns no matter how mundane or absurd they may appear.

Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was right on the mark when he said, “All politics is local.” No other adage better encapsulates the political tenet. It applies to the political scene in Korea as well as that in the United States.

An effective way for a politician to demonstrate that he is best serving the interests of voters back home is to win pork-barrel projects. As such, he strives for a bill or policy funding big-ticket projects that are designed to ingratiate him with his constituency.

One of the latest cases in point involved a proposal to build an international airport in South Gyeongsang Province ― President Lee Myung-bak’s election pledge. The administration scrapped the project when it was determined to be economically unviable. Lawmakers from the local or nearby constituencies, almost all of them affiliated with the ruling party, rose up in arms against the decision.

Their reaction, though objectionable, was understandable, given the soured sentiments of their electorates. The lawmakers, who did not want to jeopardize their reelection, could not be criticized too much for putting local interests before national interests.

Political parties, however, should set themselves apart from individual lawmakers in taking action when national interests are at stake. What the main opposition Democratic Party has recently done in this regard is highly disappointing.

The Democratic Party had every right to denounce President Lee for making an election promise on which he could not make good. But it was grossly ill-advised when it said it would commit itself to building the proposed international airport when the next parliamentary and presidential elections came around in 2012. It was a showcase of unbridled populist action, and all the more so, given that its promise had no such qualifier as “if a new study proves it economically viable.”

The opposition party subjected itself to public ridicule again when it referred to the planned relocation of the headquarters of Korea Land & Housing Corp. ― a state-owned corporation into which Korea Land Corp. and Korea National Housing Corp. were merged in 2009. The two state-owned corporations were merged because they were believed to be more competitive and profitable as one.

Earlier in the week, the party set its official policy on the corporation’s relocation ― to move its land division to Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, and its housing division to Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, accommodating the pre-merger relocation plan as much as possible. Lying behind the party’s policy were suspicions harbored by individual lawmakers from North Jeolla Province.

The lawmakers suspect that the administration is planning to relocate the corporation’s entire headquarters to the city in South Gyeongsang Province to mitigate the anger provincial residents are harboring over the administration’s decision not to build an international airport there. The lawmakers apparently believe it would be better for their province to bet on taking something when it is in danger of losing everything. Here again, their action is anything but praiseworthy. Still, it is not incomprehensible.

But the opposition party was nothing short of irresponsible when it endorsed the action taken by its lawmakers. What it did was worse than to propose to separate the corporation into two. Instead, it should have made a choice between pressing for the relocation of the entire headquarters to Jeonju and honoring a decision to be made by a presidential commission on regional advancement in the near future.
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