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The hearings must go on

Apr 06,2019
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Rep. Na Kyung-won, center, floor leader of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, attacks nominations for ministers under the Moon Jae-in administration on March 28. [LIM HYUN-DONG]
LEE JUNG-MIN
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“As a president, I cannot be happy with the idea of institutionalizing confirmation hearings,” former President Roh Moo-hyun said in January 2005 after unwillingly accepting the resignation of Lee Ki-joon, deputy prime minister and minister for education, only five days after he took office due to controversy over his ethical standards. “But we might as well have it [confirmation hearings] as the nominees at least have a chance to defend themselves,” he said.

His pride was hurt as he had been sure of his choices as the candidates faced three trials — scrutiny by the secretariat for personnel, the senior secretariat for civil affairs and the president. Both secretaries for personnel and civil affairs stepped down for their failure to recognized the flaws in the nominee. The scandal over Lee led to the 2006 institutionalization of confirmation hearings for public officials at the ministerial level.

Legislative confirmation hearings have been going for over a decade. Yet there are valid questions about how ineligible candidates have ended up in jobs regardless of disapproval by the legislature.

Since confirmation hearings became institutionalized, about 30 candidates took up their posts without approval from the National Assembly. President Moon Jae-in is about to beat the record of his predecessor. He is expected to seat five nominees, including Kim Yeon-chul as unification minister and Park Young-sun as minister for SMEs and Startups, if the legislature does not present its review reports by the Sunday deadline. The number of Moon’s nominees taking their positions without clearance from the legislature will soon reach 10.

Considering the three years and two months left in his term, Moon may even exceed the 17 seated in the Lee Myung-bak administration.
It is a shame to repeat the same farce over and over again. The controversies over the candidates mostly derive from allegations about real estate speculation, tax evasion, illicit residence registrations to get their children into better schools and conscription irregularities.

They are no different from the conservative elites they lambasted for abusing their wealth and status for personal gains. Yet they excuse themselves, claiming past governments were worse. The liberal administration’s slogans about equal opportunities, fair procedures, and just results no longer sound convincing.

Appointments speak for the administration. The people in charge of recruitment in the Blue House should be held responsible for their failure to find and come up with people who can uphold the values of the liberals while being free from irregularities and corruption. They must not be pardoned by a president who thinks those who suffered during confirmation hearings tend to do their work well.

A confirmation hearing is designed to reinforce the legislature’s role of checking the administration. It is an important institution to uphold and advance democracy. In democratic states, institutions are as valuable as elections.

Since the Cold War, few democratic states have been toppled by military coups and dictatorships have become unacceptable. Democracy is under challenge today mostly from populism. Democracy is in crisis when an elected leader defies the separation of powers and attempts to wield mighty power. Leaders like Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey are such examples. After they were elected to power, they destabilized democratic institutions like law enforcement agencies, legislatures and the press to demoralize democracy and endanger their countries.

Venezuela’s tragedy, where hungry people are fleeing their nation en masse, stems from the destabilization of institutions. Maduro carried out a judicial coup by influencing the top court and replacing the legislature with a constitutional committee comprised of his loyalists. This shows how democracy can be devastated when institutional pillars come down.

The U.S. Congress holds over 1,140 confirmation hearings on public officials. It is given the power to check a president’s power to make appointments. The institution of confirmation hearings must stay secure.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 5, Page 33