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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Dec. 5)

All News 06:58 December 05, 2017

Brazen pay raise

With budget in deadlock, lawmakers find room to agree on increasing own benefits

It was recently revealed that a budget subcommittee of the National Assembly had decided early last month to raise the annual pay of members of the assembly.

The current monthly salary of an Assembly member is 11.49 million won ($10,600), including 6.46 million won in "general allowances." The committee decided to increase the allowance by 6.2 percent to 6.63 million won. If the salary hike passes the plenary session, annual pay of an Assembly member will rise from 137.96 million won to 140 million won. The additional remuneration to all 300 lawmakers next year will total about 600 million won.

Lawmakers say the raise, which will end a six-year salary freeze, is not so sharp.

But the issue is not the rate of increase.

What surprises the people is that lawmakers of ruling and opposition parties have somehow come to a consensus when it comes to their own benefits even while they remain deadlocked over the budget.

"The allowance was raised because the National Assembly Secretariat has automatically applied the salary increase rate for civil servants to the allowance for Assembly members," Rep. Park Hong-geun of the Democratic Party of Korea, who chairs the budget subcommittee, said, "I did not know it because there was no procedure to examine the annual pay of Assembly members separately."

This is a lame excuse. His claim of ignorance about the pay raise is unconvincing. He should have been more meticulous in reviewing budget items.

On Nov. 24, the National Assembly passed a bill that will allow every Assembly member to claim an allowance to cover the cost of employing one more aide next year.

If every lawmaker hires an additional aide, about 6.7 billion won in additional personnel expenses will be required from next year.

If lawmakers feel the need to hire more aides, they can certainly do so by paying for their salaries out of their own funds, but in this case the salaries are paid with taxes. The bill cleared the Steering Committee, the Legislation and Judiciary Committee and the plenary session quickly and without open discussion.

The budget subcommittee decided to reduce lawmakers' "special activity" budget from 8.15 billion won this year to 6.27 billion won next year. But most of the eliminated special activity accounts effectively exist in different names, such as allowances for forums or specific operational expenses.

During their general election season last year, both ruling and opposition parties promised to cut the annual pay of Assembly members. The Saenuri Party, the precedent of the Liberty Korea Party, vowed to return a year's salary of its lawmakers if it fails to put its election pledges into practice. A Democratic Party candidate suggested a 30 percent pay reduction, while the People’s Party proposed a 25 percent cut.

But their salaries have not been returned, nor have they been cut.

Lawmakers also made such election pledges as abolishing their immunity from arrest, applying a no-work-no-pay rule to lawmakers missing Assembly sessions and adopting a system to recall legislators. But none of them has been carried out.

According to research by Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Administration on parliamentary members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states, South Korean lawmakers were ranked third behind those of Japan and Italy in 2015 in terms of annual pay as a proportion of per capita national income.

Each lawmaker costs the nation about 700 million won in taxes a year. Lawmakers are slow in deliberating bills related to people's livelihoods, but quick in passing those to increase their pay and privileges.

They promised to be different in the new Assembly, but little has changed.

Of the bill covering the costs of employing one more aide, some lawmakers were shameless enough to say, "Public criticism always disappears in a few days," and "It is not always desirable to try to avoid offending the people."

Lawmakers must reflect on why they are viewed as symbols of brazenness and incompetence.

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