The primary authority and power of lawmakers comes from Article 40 of the Constitution: “The legislative power shall be vested in the National Assembly.”
Under the Constitution and relevant laws that protect and guarantee the National Assembly’s exclusive right to make laws, its members are given authority and privileges unmatched by those granted to other branches of the government. Immunity is one such privilege.
Because of such status, or perhaps despite it, the National Assembly is one of the least-regulated public institutions in terms of supervision, internal audits or other controls.
This combination of virtually unbridled power and a lack of effective internal and external controls allows lawmakers to commit corruption, abuse of authority and other misdeeds. They even engage in violent acts, such as smashing down doors with hammers and throwing a tear gas canister onto the Assembly floor.
In reality, it is difficult to rein in lawmakers because institutional restrictions may interfere with their constitutional right to enact laws. This highlights the importance of outside scrutiny and pressure to ensure that they fulfill their responsibilities and maintain high ethical standards.
Considering this, the recent decision of the Korean Bar Association to evaluate the legislative activity of each member of the National Assembly is very much welcomed.
The reasons behind the KBA’s evaluation were summed up by one of its senior members: “There are simply too many legislative bills and the bills are dealt with too hastily. … There are many overlapping bills too.”
Statistics back up the KBA’s view. The number of bills proposed by lawmakers has increased rapidly in recent years. There were 1,912 bills proposed during the 16th Assembly, which served from 2000-2004, with the number surging to 6,387 during the 17th Assembly and 12,220 during the 18th Assembly.
In the current 19th Assembly, which opened in 2012, more than 9,000 bills have been written by lawmakers so far. This is no doubt too many, considering the nation’s unicameral legislature usually has no more than 300 members.
As the KBA official pointed out, lawmakers tend not to spend enough time on legislative bills proposed by their colleagues. In extreme cases, the National Assembly puts bills to a vote among all its members on the same day they are proposed.
This nonsensical situation is possible because bills authored by lawmakers do not go through the multiple stages of deliberations, discussions, reviews and endorsements as government-proposed bills do.
A lawmaker needs only the names of nine consenting colleagues to put forward a legislative proposal, while government-drafted bills involve, among others, the ruling party, relevant government agencies, the regulatory reform panel, a vice ministers’ meeting and a full Cabinet session.
Another serious problem is that bills proposed by lawmakers tend to be more regulatory than those drafted by the government. A Federation of Korean Industries report on the legislative activity of the 18th Assembly from 2008 to 2011 found that 17.8 percent of the bills enacted based on lawmakers’ proposals added to the number of regulations, compared with 9.4 percent for government-proposed bills. These bills run counter to the nation’s painstaking campaign to reduce administrative red tape.
All things considered, the KBA’s evaluation of the legislative activity of each member of the National Assembly is well-timed. A nomination of the Bad Bill of the Year by someone with high expertise and a strong reputation will certainly force lawmakers to exercise prudence and self-restraint with the bills they write.
It is hoped that the KBA will extend its legislative evaluation not only to government-proposed bills but to by-laws and ordinances enacted by local councils as well.