In the highly confrontational politics in this country, the ruling and opposition parties rarely act in unison over a legislative plan. The almost only exceptions are when bills are proposed to raise the allowances of the members of the National Assembly or to create new positions for legislative aides.
Parties were about to make an important entry in the short list of legislations with bipartisan support during the session ending this week, with a bill to ease restrictions on political donations. But this time the process proved not quite as smooth as their strategists had expected.
The so-called “security guards bill” was drafted by the staff of the Public Administration and Security Committee as the Seoul prosecutors indicted six lawmakers on charges of receiving donations from members of the Association of Security Guards at Public Organizations. The revision bill to the Law on Political Funds would allow lawmakers to receive limited political donations from individual members of interest groups or organizations in connection with a legislation plan while donations directly from organizations would continue to be banned.
Floor leaders of the ruling Grand National Party and the main opposition Democratic Party agreed to pass the bill through the plenary session this Friday. The bill was unanimously endorsed Friday at the Public Administration and Security Committee in a record 10 minutes.
Leaders of the major parties had the generous intention of saving their six colleagues, who could possibly lose their Assembly seats if they are convicted and sentenced to fines of 1 million won or more. But they failed to anticipate that their legislative action would face such strong repercussions from those who were already well aware of the prosecution probe into the security guards’ donation case.
It truly was a clumsy political move to try to quash a criminal indictment by writing a new law. The republic’s legislative history has had no precedence of changing the law to interfere in a specific criminal case. Blue House aides made it known to lawmakers that President Lee Myung-bak may consider vetoing the bill, which they called one of the worst examples of the abuse of legislative power.
Leaders of both parties belatedly realized what they had sought was fundamentally wrong. By Monday afternoon, they were talking about shelving the bill at the Legislation and Judiciary Committee and were considering an extensive review of regulations on political donations, which they still believe are excessively tight.
It is somewhat inspiring that politicians fear public resentment this much. But there is no assurance that our lawmakers would refrain from banding together across party lines in search of their own interests. Already, about 60 Assembly members have signed up for a revision bill to the election law to remove a clause that disqualifies an elected lawmaker if one of his or her immediate family is convicted of illegal campaigning with a heavy fine or jail term.
Political reform endeavors over the past years have produced election campaign and political financing systems that have proven effective in suppressing corruption and ensuring fair competition. Future tasks should include stronger oversight by the electorate to frustrate any attempt in the political community to turn the clock back in the name of greater efficiency, or under the argument that social advancement requires easing systems and regulations.
The short-lived “security guards bill” should be preserved in the National Assembly archive as a reminder of how far lawmakers can pursue self-interest through bipartisan cooperation.