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Change the confirmation system

Apr 25,2019
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Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

When attending confirmation hearings, U.S. Senate committee members are normally seated in the shape of a horseshoe, with the committee chair sitting in the middle and other ranking members sitting on each side. A while ago, I heard from a U.S. political analyst that such an arrangement helps Congress members refrain from pointing fingers at each other. That’s because the president’s nominee is seated on the opposite side facing all the committee members, which naturally allows all eyes to focus on the nominee, not each other. That is different from Korea’s rectangular-shaped positioning of seats.

Yet I think there is a more crucial reason why U.S. lawmakers aren’t wrangling with one another as much as Korea’s. That’s because they’re seated about 50 centimeters (19.6 inches) higher than the nominee, which also places a burden on committee members to act with more class. What would happen if Korea’s National Assembly adopted such a system? Would lawmakers still point and scream at one another instead of concentrating on the nominees sitting below them?

Questions in our confirmation hearings are nothing but ordinary — such as why the nominees did not submit their requested documents, whether they were involved in any shady real estate deals, why they’ve invested so much in stocks, why they plagiarized or why they raised their children so poorly, to name a few. It’s all about finding skeletons in their closets. And the reason is simple: The National Assembly tried to imitate a U.S. system adopted in 1787, but failed. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of Government Ethics spend two to three months digging into nominees even before their nominations. Therefore, if they find any critical lapses, the president cannot nominate that person. That’s why Senate confirmation hearings focus more on verifying that person’s thoughts and vision for the job they could assume.

Kevin K. McAleenan, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reportedly submitted a plethora of documents to the FBI explaining his personal background and financial transactions before U.S. President Donald Trump named him the acting secretary earlier this month. Thanks to such a thorough screening process, Congress rejected just nine nominees over the past 230 years. What about us? The National Assembly didn’t adopt a hearing report for 18 presidential nominees since President Moon Jae-in took office 23 months ago. And yet he pushed through their appointments.

We must come up with a solution. What caused this chaos in the first place is that the president holds the ultimate authority for making appointments. If so, there is no reason to hold a confirmation hearing. The real solution is to hand over that authority to the National Assembly. Critics can say that lawmakers are unqualified to make such crucial moves or that the decision would undermine the president’s power. Yet we can overcome such problems with backup systems. For instance, we can establish a neutral committee, whose members work behind closed doors to verify the qualifications of a presidential nominee, and in case that person receives a green light, the committee can pass on their background information to the National Assembly. That way, many qualified people who refuse the president’s call to duty just because they don’t want to tarnish their reputations at confirmation hearings could at least give it a shot. Plus, lawmakers can focus on the nominee’s visions for their potential new job during the hearings.

The whole controversy over Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs, Cho Kuk, and his failure to verify presidential nominees, as well as Moon’s pushing through his appointments despite fierce opposition from the legislature, is not a baseless phenomenon. There are many loopholes in the current confirmation system — that’s why Moon’s nominees and the Blue House now think of confirmation hearings simply as a joke.

Citizens who watch the hearings on television feel ashamed. The only way to stop this is to change the system. Fortunately, the ruling and opposition parties are starting to show the will to do so. Let’s wait and see if they have the gumption too.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 24, Page 34