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Contentious grain bill put directly to plenary meeting for vote

Main opposition-controlled parliamentary standing committee passes 5 contentious bills, hinting at repeat of stagnancy in the legislative process

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : April 18, 2024 - 15:21

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The National Assembly’s Agriculture, Food, Rural Affairs, Oceans and Fisheries Committee holds a meeting in western Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap) The National Assembly’s Agriculture, Food, Rural Affairs, Oceans and Fisheries Committee holds a meeting in western Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

A main opposition-controlled parliamentary standing committee on Thursday unilaterally passed a total of five contentious bills, including a watered-down version of the revision to the Grain Management Act that was vetoed by President Yoon Suk Yeol last year.

The move aims to expedite their consideration, intending to usher them directly into a plenary session at the National Assembly for voting.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has accelerated the passage of contentious bills following the party's resounding victory in the April 10 general election, seizing the moment as an opportunity.

The party aims to push through these bills during the provisional session of the National Assembly in May, before the current term of the National Assembly concludes on May 29.

The government and the ruling party swiftly protested the National Assembly’s Agriculture, Food, Rural Affairs, Oceans and Fisheries Committee’s decision, hinting at another round of stalemate in the passage of bills during Yoon’s remaining three years in office.

The 11 Democratic Party of Korea lawmakers and one independent lawmaker of the 19-member committee voted in favor of the bills in a meeting held at the National Assembly in western Seoul. Seven People Power Party lawmakers who were part of the committee boycotted the meeting.

The revision to the Grain Management Act requires the government to purchase excess rice yields.

The current Grain Management Act is designed to secure stable food supplies through the efficient management of the supply and demand for grain. The proposed revision mandates that the government purchases all excess rice production when a state committee led by the vice agriculture minister deems that surplus production exceeds annual demand.

It is a watered-down version of the previous revision to the Grain Management Act, which was vetoed by Yoon in April last year, a month after the opposition-led Assembly passed the bill. Last year’s version stipulated stricter demand from the government with more detailed conditions, calling for the purchase of excess rice when surplus production exceeds 3-5 percent of demand or when the price of rice falls by 5-8 percent compared to the previous year.

It marked the first time Yoon exercised his presidential veto, criticizing the bill as a “populist” tactic by the main opposition. It was also the first veto by a Korean president in seven years.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs swiftly protested the revision to the Grain Management Act, saying that the amendment would “legally force the government to purchase excess rice, which could cause farmers to produce excess rice leading to an oversupply in the market,” via Thursday’s statement.

If the revision is passed, the government will have to allocate a “massive budget” to uphold the law, which in turn could result in a cutback on spending on other state-funded projects such as smart farming development.

The other bills passed by the Assembly’s agricultural committee Thursday included an amendment to the Special Act on Remedy for Damage Caused by the April 16 Sewol Ferry Disaster and Assistance Therefor, which aims to bolster financial support for the victims and bereaved families of the disaster. The sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014 claimed a total of 304 lives, most of whom were students on a school trip.

The Assembly’s agricultural committee was able to pass the five bills earlier in the day without the support of the ruling party members due to the rules stipulated in the National Assembly Act.

According to Article 86, a bill pending at the judiciary committee for over 60 days can be sent to a plenary session upon the agreement of 60 percent of the standing committee members. All five bills had been pending at the parliamentary legislation and judiciary committee for over 60 days.

However, another variable in this equation is Yoon's potential use of his veto power to send back the revised bill for the Grain Management Act and other controversial bills to the Assembly.

The Assembly can override a presidential veto and enact a bill into law if over 200 of the 300 members vote in favor of it for the second time. However, the current composition of the National Assembly suggests that overturning Yoon's veto may be challenging.

The Democratic Party and its affiliated party currently hold a combined total of 156 seats, slightly down from their initial 180 seats secured in 2020. On the other hand, the People Power Party and its satellite party hold a total of 114 seats.