|The new legislation designating taxis as public transportation passes the National Assembly on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)|
The nation’s politicians appear to be still mired in populism and vulnerable to special interests despite much-touted pledges of political reform.
The National Assembly’s year set off Tuesday with the delayed passage of the budget which included pork-barrel funding at the expense of security, research and other crucial national projects.
The 342 trillion won ($321 billion) spending plan was approved after hours of wrangling over the funding for the naval base on Jeju.
The approval came a month after the deadline of Dec. 2 stipulated in the constitution, making it the first time since 1960 when the approval for the coming year’s budget came after the dawn of the New Year. In addition, no changes were made to the budget for lawmakers’ pension, which has been one of the main points in the calls to reduce the privileges of those in power.
The delay stands out more in that it is in direct contradiction of the revised National Assembly Act, due to come into effect in May, that stipulates that the budget will be processed before the deadline.
Commonly referred to as the “National Assembly advancement law,” the revision was approved last May to prevent physical clashes and delays in administrative processes.
The delay has also sparked off a blame game between the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic United Party, another long-standing fixture in local politics.
“The DUP dragged on the process despite the fact that the floor leaders reached a final agreement,” Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon told reporters on Tuesday. He added that the opposition party discarded the agreement despite the concessions made in their favor.
“All of our 150 lawmakers kept their seats all night and showed tolerance. The DUP has nothing to say about the late processing of the budget.”
For its part, the DUP has blamed the ruling party’s “nothing to lose” attitude as the cause of the delay.
In addition to the longer-than-usual delay, the process of approving the budget was rife with customs of “old politics.”
According to reports, the budget modification subcommittee is said to have received around 4,500 “memos” requesting allocation of additional funds for various regional projects from lawmakers.
The memos are said to have also included requests sent by lawmakers on behalf of provincial governments and state-run organizations as well as special interest groups in their constituencies.
As the requests continued to come in large numbers, some of the subcommittee members and government officials are reported to have set up office in a hotel room to prevent such goings on from being noticed.
In addition, those officials are also suspected of having spent about one week in reviewing the requests behind close doors.
Even pledges to uphold the “people’s livelihoods,” which were made by all sides during the presidential election, do not appear to have been sufficient to wholly withstand the barrage of requests.
While funding for various social infrastructure projects is estimated to have risen by between 370 billion and 550 billion won, that allocated for medical subsidies for the poor was cut by more than 200 billion won.
In increasing the funding directed to various constituencies, the political clout of the lawmaker concerned appears to have been a major factor, with the constituencies of some of the senior-most figures from both the ruling and opposition parties seeing the largest increases.
The largest increase was seen in the funding for various projects in Incheon, which contains the constituency of Saenuri Party chairman Hwang Woo-yea, with more than 65 billion won in additional funds being set aside for the western port city.
The Saenuri Party floor leader’s constituency in Daegu saw additional 18.2 billion won allocated for a feasibility study concerning a medical services project, while an additional 6 billion won was allocated to the constituency of Rep. Suh Byung-soo, the ruling party’s secretary-general.
The DUP was not free from the apparent correlation between political influence and budget allocation. Former DUP floor leader Park Jie-won’s Mokpo in South Jeolla Province was allocated an additional 2.6 billion won for three projects, while about 5 billion won extra has been set aside for projects in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, which includes DUP floor leader Park Ki-choon’s constituency.
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org