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In Assembly, a tussle for control

July 02,2018
Negotiations to end a month of gridlock began at the National Assembly on Sunday with the ruling and opposition parties jostling for control over key standing committees.

With the National Assembly’s current four-year term past the midway point, the legislature is now pressed to decide on how to allocate its 18 standing committees, and pick a new speaker and deputy speakers to represent the body in the second half of the parliamentary session.

The legislature has been in a standstill for over a month after the devastating defeat of opposition parties in local elections on June 13. The main conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party is in no shape to conduct talks with the ruling Democratic Party.

In May, the Democratic Party selected Moon Hee-sang, a six-term lawmaker, as its candidate for speaker. While the post is expected to go to the Democrats, since the speaker is usually from the party with a plurality, the opposition has been feuding among themselves over the two deputy speaker positions.

The distribution of standing committees will likely be the subject of intense skirmish, given the heavily fractured legislature. The National Assembly has an unprecedented four negotiating blocs fighting for control over the standing committees. Three of the blocs are the three biggest parties - the Democratic Party, Liberty Korea Party and center-right Bareunmirae Party. The fourth bloc comprises two minor parties.

Although the Democrats picked up 11 seats in the June 13 elections, they only hold 130, far from the absolute majority they need to secure passage of President Moon Jae-in’s agenda.

In response, the Parliamentary Group for Peace and Justice, a negotiating bloc comprising the left-leaning Justice Party and Party for Democracy and Peace, proposed the formation of a broad coalition translated as “Legislative Alliance for Reform” which includes them, the Democratic Party and other progressive-minded independent lawmakers. This would give the left an absolute majority of 157 seats.

Political analysts believe the Parliamentary Group for Peace and Justice may be vying for control over certain standing committees or seats in Moon’s cabinet in exchange for their legislative support. Even some members of the Bareunmirae Party have expressed interest in joining this proposed coalition.

Kim Sung-tae, acting chairman of the Liberty Korea Party, criticized this plan on Friday as a move to “consolidate the domination of the administration based on a legislative monopoly” and stressed the necessity of a parliamentary check on presidential power.

The National Assembly’s standing committees are responsible for examining and debating bills before they are presented to the greater floor and thus exercise heavy influence over legislative agendas. Like their counterparts in the U.S. Congress, Korea’s standing committees are composed of lawmakers with specialized knowledge of their respective fields. Any bill submitted by a lawmaker or the president first needs to be reviewed by the appropriate standing committee before it can be put to a vote.

The most coveted positions are the House Steering Committee, which oversees the National Assembly’s operations and office of the president, and the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, which oversees the judiciary and has final say over whether to pass bills to the floor.

The chair of the House Steering Committee typically goes to the ruling party’s floor leader due to its responsibility of executive oversight. The Liberty Korea Party held the seat in the first half of the legislative term when it was the ruling party. The Democratic Party is now seeking to control the committee after Moon’s election in May 2017.

The Legislation and Judiciary Committee, on the other hand, is customarily chaired by the opposition. Political analysts consider the committee a de facto upper house in the unicameral Korean legislature because all bills have to go through the committee regardless of content. With an opposition leader at the helm, the committee can check the ruling party’s dominance in the National Assembly.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]