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[Editorial] Impasse from the start

National Assembly must stop bickering over how to form standing committees

By Korea Herald

Published : June 7, 2024 - 05:30

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The National Assembly on Wednesday held its plenary session and elected the speaker to lead the first half of its new term in a unilateral vote, with the lawmakers from the ruling party boycotting the session, the first time this has happened in South Korea’s history.

The Assembly controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea went ahead with the plenary session to elect five-term lawmaker Woo Won-shik as the new speaker and four-term lawmaker Lee Hak-young as the vice speaker in the absence of the lawmakers of the ruling People Power Party.

Out of the 192 present lawmakers of the Democratic Party and minor parties, 189 voted in favor of electing Woo as speaker, while there was no vote cast from the People Power Party, which slammed the speaker election as the opposition party’s “abuse of its Assembly majority.”

The Democratic Party outnumbers the People Power Party by 171 to 108 as a result of the April 10 parliamentary election, and dominates the 300-member parliament as the biggest member of an opposition bloc of 192 seats.

People Power Party’s floor leader Choo Kyung-ho briefly attended the session but left right after he addressed the Assembly, claiming that the plenary session is “neither constitutional nor legal” because no bipartisan agreement was made on the agenda.

Wednesday’s unseemly development came after the rival parties clashed over the formation of the 18 parliamentary standing committees for the Assembly’s four-year term.

At the center of the dispute is who will chair the three major committees: the Legislation and Judiciary Committee in charge of reviewing and approving bills before they are put to a plenary vote; the House Steering Committee handling matters related to the operation of the legislature; and the Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee, which has authority over technology and media policies, among other segments.

Both the People Power Party and the Democratic Party want to chair all three. The rival parties continued their negotiations Wednesday but failed to reach an agreement on how to form the standing committees.

A fierce fight for the committee chair seats was first floated shortly after the general election was held in April, with some lawmakers of the Democratic Party arguing that the opposition party with the majority seats at the Assembly should take the chair positions of the key committees.

It is customary for the party holding the most parliamentary seats to take the speaker position and the second-ranked party to take the chair position of the legislative committee. The biggest rival parties have tended to distribute committee leadership seats between them rather than embracing a winner-take-all practice. But this unwritten practice is not always respected. In 2020, the Democratic Party -- the ruling party at the time -- monopolized all the standing committee chair seats, the first such event by the ruling party since 1988.

Under the National Assembly Act, the parties should determine the heads of the standing committees by Friday. But expectations for a smooth breakthrough are low since the major parties wasted nearly a month squabbling over the standing committees. This illustrates that both the ruling and the main opposition parties lack the political will to seek a compromise for the public and start working on important yet long-neglected bills.

One of the contentious issues that should be promptly handled at the National Assembly involves taxes, with some lawmakers expressing views in favor of overhauling or abolishing the comprehensive real estate holding tax. And the bills over the long-delayed pension reforms and a dismally low birth rate have to be processed through bipartisan cooperation.

The previous Assembly was under fire for failing to pass urgent bills. Lawmakers must realize that the new Assembly could end up with the same disgrace unless they stop wasteful partisan wrangling that has resulted in a political deadlock from the very beginning of a new term.