The ruling and opposition parties began last-minute high-level negotiations Monday, with just five days left to the deadline Saturday for the passage of the 2018 government budget.
The parties failed to compromise on 172 budget items amounting to 25 trillion won ($23 billion). It is pathetic to hurry things through belatedly, though the government submitted its 429 trillion won budget bill for deliberation in September. What have the lawmakers been doing?
The people cannot but hold them responsible for neglecting budget deliberations, one of the key roles of the legislature, and instead focusing on partisan strife over the government’s anti-corruption drive and other high-profile issues. Deliberation of unresolved items is now likely to be fudged.
Rival parties are showing signs of restarting their perennial practice of striking a big deal at the last moment after an intense tug-of-war over the budget. There is the possibility of collusion as well.
The ruling and two major opposition parties on Monday inaugurated a “2+2+2 meeting” to be attended by the chief policymaker and vice floor leader of each party to negotiate the budgets related to major issues. A day earlier, the parties had created a “small subcommittee” of the parliamentary budget committee to work out minor issues. It consisted of the chairman and the three party secretaries of the budget committee. The stage was set for closed-door politics.
The parties vowed to seek agreements through the panels, but their accords are not expected to come easily unless the parties do some political horse trading. Leaving it up to the few members of the small subcommittee to decide on the many unsettled items within such a short period is effectively giving up on proper deliberation.
The deliberation and passage of a government budget is one of the most important functions of the legislative branch. Lawmakers must endeavor to bring about an efficient distribution of national resources as well as fiscal reform of the executive branch from a long-term perspective. Disappointingly, they have put off too much of this work.
Just as they have done whenever a government budget is deliberated, quite a few lawmakers have made personal requests to the parliamentary budget committee to increase allocations for their electorates. Such requests, delivered mostly through mobile text messages or written notes, are said to be more common than usual this year because the budget for social overhead capital projects such as roads and airport construction has been reduced by as much as 20 percent, and also because elections for governors, mayors and local council members are slated for June next year.
If their requests are reflected in the budget, an efficient allocation of limited resources, the very basis of budgeting, is impossible. Taxes must be spent on projects chosen after strict feasibility studies, but this is made impossible by items added to the budget at the last minute and without due deliberation.
Considering their political survival depends on votes in their districts, it is unrealistic to expect lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition parties to voluntarily stop making such requests. A system to block their requests at the source needs to be institutionalized.
Even if it is pressed for time, the National Assembly must not consider carelessly those budgets with far-reaching consequences. Rival parties are sharply divided over President Moon Jae-in’s signature election pledge to increase the number of public-sector employees by 170,000 during his presidency and a 2.9 trillion won budget to subsidize the sharp increase in the minimum wage.
It is the National Assembly’s job to pass the government budget to allow the executive branch to function well, but the controversial projects need prudent judgement because they will certainly cause large increases in spending each year once they are approved.
It is important to meet the deadline, but it is as important to consider each item properly. A rushed deliberation will damage taxpayers.