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[Editorial] Pork-barrel politics

[Editorial] Pork-barrel politics

Budget deliberation system needs reform

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Published : 2013-12-17 19:41
Updated : 2013-12-17 19:41

As in previous years, lawmakers deliberating the government’s budget proposal are keen to secure state funding for their districts, a practice called pork-barreling. Their enthusiasm appears to be stronger than usual due to the local elections slated for next year.

As a result, all 12 of the Assembly’s 16 standing committees that have finished deliberations approved a budget increase. The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Committee had the biggest rise in requested funding, at 2.3 trillion won, followed by the Security and Public Administration Committee with 690 billion won and the Trade, Industry and Energy Committee with 540 billion won. The combined sum reaches 4.8 trillion won.

The figure is expected to surpass 9 trillion won when the remaining four standing committees complete their review. The Health and Welfare Committee is expected to add some 2 trillion won to the original proposal, while the Agriculture, Food, Rural Affairs, Oceans and Fisheries Committee is likely to add another 1.8 trillion won.

Budget deliberations at the standing committee level are thus not about cutting unnecessary spending. Lawmakers are only interested in securing money for projects that are important to their districts. They do not care whether those projects are feasible.

For instance, legislators on the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Committee decided to set aside 60 billion won for the high-speed rail project between Boseong and Mokpo of South Jeolla Province. The government requested a mere 200 million won for the project as its feasibility has not yet been tested.

They also allocated 20 billion won for electrification of the railway between Dongducheon and Yeoncheon in Gyeonggi Province, ignoring the warning from the Board of Audit and Inspection that investing in the project would be pouring money down the drain.

Budget allocations to these two pork-barrel projects are also typical examples of exchanges of favors among legislators from rival parties. Lawmakers are supposed to work across the aisle to promote national interests. In reality, they only exercise bipartisanship when their personal interests are at stake.

Budget plans approved by the standing committees are not final; they are subject to review by the Special Committee on Budget and Settlement of Accounts. But the ad hoc panel cannot be expected to thoroughly go over what the standing committees have done.

For one thing, it usually doesn’t have enough time. This year is a case in point. As budget deliberations started only after the Dec. 2 legal deadline had already passed, it has less than two weeks left to finalize the budget. Furthermore, it usually consists of members who are not budget specialists.

All this highlights the need to reform the present budget deliberation system. The top priority is to make the ad hoc budget committee a standing one. This is an essential step to ensure that budget bills are scrutinized in a professional and objective way.

Any reform attempt should also aim to make the review process at the budget committee transparent by opening it up to the public. At the final stage of deliberations, budget figures are adjusted by a handful of lawmakers from rival parties through secret deals that involve huge amounts of money. We have no idea what kind of deals they make. These deals should be brought to light to eliminate any room for irregularities.

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