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Confirmation hearing process under scrutiny, but revision may be delayed

The country’s political parties are once again seeking to revamp parliamentary confirmation hearings for government posts, driven by the controversies surrounding Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

Rather than being a stage for vetting nominees for high-level posts, confirmation hearings have often been marred by partisan clashes, and personal attacks.

Problems and shortcomings of parliamentary confirmation hearings have long been subjects of discussion. The issues raised include lack of regulations for penalizing nominees for giving false information and inability of the parliament to force nominees to provide information.

Parliamentary confirmation hearing for then-Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk held on Sept. 6 (Yonhap)
Parliamentary confirmation hearing for then-Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk held on Sept. 6 (Yonhap)

In addition, the limited influence of hearing on whether the president appoints a candidate has brought their efficacy into question. The president has the authority to appoint a nominee regardless of the confirmation hearing report of the parliamentary committee.

According to National Assembly data released by Rep. Kim Kyung-jin, the number of nominees appointed without a report being adopted by the parliamentary committee has soared during the Moon Jae-in administration.

The data shows that 39 of 67 nominees who require confirmation hearings but not parliamentary approval were appointed without a report being adopted.

In comparison, the Park Geun-hye administration saw nine out of 80 nominees being appointed without a hearing report, and the figure for Lee Myung-bak administration came to 13 out of 85.

Since Cho was nominated on Aug. 9, four Personnel Hearing Act revision bills have been proposed, three of which came from the ruling Democratic Party, and one by those from the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

Speaking at a meeting between the ruling party’s senior lawmakers and its committee on National Assembly innovation committee, five-term lawmaker Rep. Park Byeong-seug stressed the need to revise the hearing act.

“The Personnel Hearing Act must be fixed,” Park said, claiming that the negative aspects of the hearing are discouraging potential nominees to go for ministerial posts.

“To find well-equipped individuals, the system must be changed to (vetting) moral standards in undisclosed way, and (nominees’) policies publicly. (The changes) can be applied from the next administration.”

Other lawmakers including four-term Rep. An Min-suk echoed Park, adding that the Democratic Party should persuade the opposition parties to revise the act.

However, persuading the main opposition party is likely to be a difficult task, with the two sides approaching the issue from very different angles.

All three of Democratic Party’s proposals focus on protecting nominees’ privacy. The proposers say that the confirmation hearings have focused on tarnishing the nominees, and delve too deeply and publicly into the lives of their families.

The bills reflect comments from the party’s leadership, as well as President Moon Jae-in.

On appointing Cho, Moon made an unusual public address at a Cabinet member appointment ceremony.

In the address, Moon said that the more reform minded nominees are, the more difficulties they face, adding that the confirmation hearings were “not being operated as intended.”

Moon’s comments were soon followed by statements from ranking Democratic Party members.

On Sept. 15, Democratic Party Floor Leader Rep. Lee In-young claimed that the public is “demanding reforms of the hearing system,” while the party’s policy chief Rep. Cho Jeong-sik said that the party will seek sweeping reforms, saying that the hearings have become “a stage for personal attacks.”

The bill of the Liberty Korea Party on the other hand focuses on preventing false testimonies from nominees.

It proposed on Sept. 11 calls for adding clauses that allow the chairman of the relevant parliamentary committee to file criminal complaint against nominees who give false testimonies. The bill would also add a criminal penalty of between one and 10 years of imprisonment for nominees who give false information.

In addition to the gap in the parties’ views, the bills are making very slow progress while time is running out. A bill automatically expires if unprocessed during the four-year term of the National Assembly in which it was proposed.

Since the current National Assembly began its 4-year term in May 2016, 54 bills for revising the Personnel Hearing Act have been proposed, and none have gone past the stage of being submitted to the relevant parliamentary committee.

Under local regulations, a bill is reported to the plenary session and then sent to the relevant committee. A committee then reviews the bill, and those that pass a vote are put to the plenary session where it is once again put to vote.

Although the bills do still have some time, the National Assembly’s track record on revising the Personnel Hearing Act does not bode well for them.

During the 19th National Assembly -- from 2012 to 2016 -- 42 revisions bills for the Personnel Hearing Act were proposed, and all of them expired without being processed.

In the previous National Assembly sessions -- 2008 to 2012 -- only two of the 30 related bills were passed into law, neither of which had much to do with improving the efficacy of the hearings.

In addition to the track record on revising the act, the current National Assembly has so far been the least productive in terms of processing bills since 1988, casting further doubts.

According to data provided by the National Assembly’s bill information system, the current National Assembly has processed only 6,350 of the 21,578 or under 30 percent bills proposed as of Aug. 31 -- the day before the final ordinary session of the current assembly.

In comparison, the previous National Assembly showed a processing rate of 34 percent for the same period. The figures for National Assemblies further back range from about 45 percent to 83 percent.

By Choi He-suk (