(26) Different viewpoints on criminal policy

By Jay Kim

One day, my congressional aides brought me two portraits of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. They wanted to display the portraits of Lincoln, a founder of the Republican Party, in my offices in Washington and California. It is common to find Lincoln’s portraits in the offices of Republican lawmakers; it is also common to find portraits of the third president and Democratic Party founder Thomas Jefferson in the offices of Democratic lawmakers.

Barack Obama, a Democrat, is the 44th president of the United States. If he runs again and wins the next election, he can serve as president for a total of eight years. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four different four-year terms from 1932 to 1945. He died one year after his fourth election, and Vice President Harry Truman became president.

After Roosevelt’s death, the 22nd Constitutional Amendment was passed on Feb. 22, 1951, limiting the total amount of time a president can serve to two terms, or eight years overall. Out of 43 U.S. presidents, only 13 held the office for eight years, including President George W. Bush. Thirty of them failed to be re-elected while in office. To be president of the U.S., one must be born in America, over 35 years of age, and have lived in the country for more than 14 years.

Among the many differences between the Republican and Democratic parties, the biggest difference outside of economic policies may be their viewpoints on criminal policy.

The Republican policy is that criminals should be duly punished and the families of victims should be provided for; the Democratic policy is that the prevention of crimes should be stressed and that criminals should be rehabilitated in order to live in society again. In California, the “3 strikes, you’re out” bill pushed by the Republican Party has been signed into law. This meant that a person who has committed three felonies is sent to prison, even if the nature of his crimes is not serious.

I have thought that a committed crime should be punished according to the law, although preventing crimes and rehabilitating criminals into society are also important. Though things have gotten better these days, in the early 1990s crime was at its highest levels in the U.S., from gang fights and petty thefts in convenience stores to bank robberies. There were frequent robberies in Koreatown, and many Korean merchants lost their lives by the guns of robbers.

New Korean immigrants would mainly open their businesses in accident-prone areas, so they were naturally exposed to danger. Once, there was an incident where a Korean owner shot a black female teenager to death while struggling with her after she tried to shoplift a single bottle of fruit juice. This caused major tension between the Korean and black communities, but after extensive joint efforts from community leaders the tension soon dissipated. These days, petty theft like this has decreased, but clever swindlers have increased.

The Democrats think that society is responsible for crimes, especially juvenile crimes. They claim that the government should put all its efforts into studying the root of crimes in order to prevent them from occurring, and that it should provide opportunities for criminals to rehabilitate themselves through education, instead of emphasizing punishment.

In contrast, Republicans take the position that if a person commits a crime, he should pay the price accordingly, and it’s not right to spend tax dollars without taking any measures for the families of victims. They also believe that parents should take first responsibility for juvenile crimes before blaming their social environment.

Most crime reports in the press talk about the criminal’s unfortunate childhood, or the circumstances leading to the commitment of the crime, or the social inequality that made the crime necessary, but do not show the same interest in the deep sorrow of the victim or victim’s family. Many Americans were surprised and embarrassed by the scenes of a crime on TV that happened in broad daylight in a major street in Los Angeles, but was ignored by many people passing by the scene.

Once I was pushed to the ground, breaking my glasses, by a teen running away with a beer stolen from a 7-11 store run by a Korean-American. I thought to myself that all these shameless thieves should be punished. A few days later, the robber was caught and I was called to testify as a witness in the court, which turned out to be quite an ordeal. I told myself at the time that I would always volunteer to be a witness in court for a crime, no matter the inconvenience to myself. But after this ordeal, I doubt I would ever volunteer again.

There were issues that would always come up during a budget session in the House. The Republican side proposed bills to build more prisons and increase the number of policemen on the street, as well as bills making parents pay for the damages caused by a juvenile crime. The Democrats would counter-propose bills to increase the budgets for social service departments in order to strengthen the rehabilitation education of inmates in prison.

They also propose bills to run various sports programs for problematic young people to redirect their energies, constructing sports facilities like basketball courts with lights in poorer, crime-prone areas where socially disadvantaged adolescents were concentrated. Republicans ridiculed these bills as “midnight basketball,” stating that crimes increase ever year despite billions spent on crime prevention programs, “midnight basketball” courts become drug markets, and some criminals cannot be rehabilitated no matter what the cost.

They claimed that habitual criminals who are frequently in and out of jail can no longer be the objects of government protection. They claim that in order to protect society from crimes, strong measures against crimes should be devised and the death penalty should be strengthened to remove these heinous criminals from society altogether.

Every election I participated in, police organizations would always support me, a Republican candidate, but social workers would always support a Democratic candidate. However, since my attitude toward crime was comparatively liberal, I was often attacked as not being a real Republican in every election. I often could not help feeling skeptical about cruel, inhumane laws, as well as the American principle that even bad laws must be obeyed.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).


(25) Conservatism vs. liberalism

By Jay Kim

I have often been asked why I, an immigrant and a member of an ethnic minority, started my political career with the predominantly white Republican Party. The truth is that, when I started to become interested in politics, I did not understand the exact differences between the conservative and liberal ideologies.

However, once I began to understand the ideological differences between the two American political parties, I could not help choosing the Republicans. There were two reasons for this. First, because the overwhelming majority of the population in my district was white and in the upper middle class tax bracket (the usual prerequisites for Republicans), there was no chance for a Democratic candidate to win in such a Republican-heavy district.

Second, as I became a somewhat semi-successful businessman in a society comprised mainly of whites competing against whites, I fell deeply into the conservative ideology without knowing it. In a California gubernatorial election, I helped the Democratic candidate Jerry Brown, who was eventually elected. I didn’t know at the time that this would be a problem later. But, in the end, I ended up joining the Republican Party.

So what are the ideological differences between the parties? The first major difference is in economic policy. I could never side with the Democrats on their economic policy, which emphasizes wealth distribution, treating businesses as thieves that exploit the have-nots, while claiming part of the money from that exploitation should be returned to the have-nots.

When I came to the U.S., all I had was $200 in my pocket. I had to go through the severe hardships of attending school during the day and working as a dishwasher at night. Having worked like this, after graduating from college I could afford to send my children to college and begin to have a decent life. This taught me to wholeheartedly despise the people that looked at me as though I had been lucky or taken advantage of the poor and powerless people.

I also could not assent to the claims of the Democrats that income tax should be increased on the higher income brackets, even over 50 percent of their income; I could not allow the government to take half of the income that I earned by working hard without much sleep and with three children to raise.

At the time, I was not quite aware that this was an ideological difference between the Republicans and Democrats; after I was elected to the House, I would often point this issue out. The Republican whip would urge me to keep giving speeches on this topic.

In Congress, there is a forum where congressional Republicans and Democrats send messages to the people through one minute speeches that are televised live by C-SPAN. These speeches are a privilege of congressmen, and they can speak on any issue that they would like. It’s a congressional tradition that dates back over two centuries ago.

I used this forum to criticize the economic policy of the Democratic Party almost every day for a while. At the time, I did not know that these speeches would provoke so many liberal civic groups. As a first-term representative, I could not expect that the focused investigation on me by the liberal newspaper in California, the Los Angeles Times, would land a critical blow to my political career.

The economic conviction of the liberal Democratic Party is that for genuine democracy to survive, a government has an obligation to reduce the economic gap between the rich and the poor. It claims that if the government neglects its responsibility, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer and more deeply trapped in poverty.

Therefore, popular uprisings are caused by this economic gap between the rich and the poor. So, according to the Democrats, to prevent social inequality, the government should be a strong agent that devotes itself to helping the powerless and reducing the economic gap. They also believe that, if the free market is left alone, opportunities are not distributed equally, so opportunities should be distributed to the less fortunate by strong policies of the central government.

It is perhaps because of these policies that the Democrats have become the party of liberals, representing the poor and ethnic minorities and defending the labor unions. The Republicans, on the other hand, are known as the party of conservatives, protecting businesses and the rich. In fact, in the 1860s the Republican Party was known as the party of African-Americans, as Abraham Lincoln was the Republican president who freed the slaves.

However, as time passed, blacks became dissatisfied with the economic policy of the Republican Party and defected to the Democrats. This situation coalesced with the election of Democrat Barack Obama as the first black president in U.S. history. With the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1920s making even the middle class turn their backs on the economic policy of the Republicans, the Republican Party almost reached a state of collapse.

However, the distributive policy of the Democrats is not absolutely right; it also has plenty of serious problems. Here is a transcript of one of my one-minute speeches on C-SPAN TV:

“Even in LA, every day the number of cases where a childless person receives government benefits by falsely claiming to have 15 children from unknown fathers increases. There are also countless numbers of people who pick up their government aid after parking their expensive luxury cars in places hidden from the sight of others.

However, the government still stresses welfare. Who would work, while unemployment benefits pay similar to salaries earned by hard work? A frighteningly increasing number of people make up injuries from work to receive aid from the government.

To make up for the costs, businesses are bombarded with taxes. As a result, business owners lose the desire to expand their countries. Even the national defense weakens as the defense budget is diverted to welfare. Our American society has become a lazy society where people only think about how to get money from the government without working.”

After this speech, I received hundreds of letters. Half of them showed ardent support, but the other half was furious criticisms. Of course, the letters had names and addresses, unlike the cowardly nameless comments politicians receive in Korea. I responded to every one of those letters. However, I forgot about a famous saying in U.S/ politics: “One hundred friends cannot stop one enemy.”

As a result, I made tens of thousands of enemies. A first-term congressman should usually lie low and be careful, but I was running wild like a hot pot. It was only later when I realized how dangerous and how wrong this small heroism of mine was.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).

(23) Contract with America

When I was a first-term U.S. House Representative, my fellow House Republicans used to complain about their 40 year-long minority status in the House, which left them powerless against the Democratic majority.

Unlike Korea, the majority party has all the power in the U.S. Congress. For example, the members of the majority party hold the position of speaker, as well as the chairmanships of every standing committee and subcommittee.

Unlike Korea, they never share those positions with the minority parties. When Newt Gingrich, a Representative from Georgia, was elected as the House minority whip in 1988, he and his fellow Republicans decided to make it their priority to become the majority party in both houses of Congress in 1994.

Traditionally, Southern Democrats always took the Republican side in their votes, even though they were Democrats. Gingrich thought that if they were given justification, it was highly likely that they would change their party allegiance to the Republican Party, since their political philosophy was closer to the Republicans’.

Southerners had an animosity toward Republicans stretching back to the Civil War, when their cities had been razed to the ground. Southerners had deep animosity toward President Lincoln and his Republican Party, and supported the Democrats.

In fact, the South became known as the “Solid South,” because every state consistently voted Democrat for nearly a century. However, as years passed the animosities of the Civil War gradually faded, and the South became more of a Republican stronghold.

Gingrich’s efforts slowly led to Southern Democrats changing their minds, and eventually about 10 of them defected and joined the Republican Party. A reception was held at the Capitol Building to welcome every new defecting Democrat, and I attended nearly all of them.

Hope was building for the Republicans to become the majority party; they had been the minority ever since 1949. When I asked Republicans from that time what they did in Congress for all those years, they would answer that they just opposed whatever the Democrats did and retired after they grew weary of doing that year after year.

We Republicans, thinking we had a golden opportunity to become the majority party, strongly united around Gingrich and poured funds into the campaigns of Republicans in districts held by unpopular Democratic incumbents. As a result, the Republicans won 230 seats in Congress to the Democrats’ 204, and became the majority party for the first time in over 40 years.

We, who changed the history of U.S. politics, praised each other and held festivities for days. I was elected to the 103rd Congress in 1992, where the Democrats had an overwhelming 258-176 majority, but the 104th Congress was much different ― and led by Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, thanks to his leadership and keen judgment, was elected as the speaker of the House. A festival atmosphere surrounded the Republicans, who were experiencing a sudden concentration of power as we were the holders of the chairmanship of every House committee.

I myself was selected as a subcommittee chairman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Republicans, who had been in opposition for so long, could take the lead in U.S. politics and create policy themselves, using the majority in Congress to ward off Democratic opposition.

While a lot of credit for the Republican majority had to go to a change in peoples’ politics toward a more conservative outlook and Gingrich’s leadership, the most crucial factor was the so-called Contract with America. This consisted of 10 bills that the Republicans promised, during the campaign, to pass within 100 days if it became the majority party in Congress.

This contract, which drew the attention of the world and helped the Republicans win the election, was announced on the front stairs of the Capitol, with every Congressional Republican in attendance.

The 10 proposed bills of the Contract with America were:

(1) Reduce the national budget deficit;

(2) Fight crime, build prisons, and strengthen the death penalty;

(3) Limit welfare from the government to two years;

(4) Give a tax break to families adopting children;

(5) Give a tax break to married couples;

(6) Increase defense spending, and put no U.S. troops under U.N. command;

(7) End taxes on the Social Security benefits of seniors;

(8) Help small businesses;

(9) Get rid of unnecessary litigation;

(10) Limit the number of terms that U.S. congressmen could serve.

It proved very difficult to pass 10 major bills within 100 days of the opening of Congress on Jan. 4, 1995. To pass these bills, we were in committee until 1 a.m. many nights, occasionally working all through the night. Finally, despite various obstacles, we achieved our goal. We overcame the fiery opposition and complaints from the Democratic Party with the help of a few sympathetic Congressional Democrats.

The Democrats, to their credit, did not unconditionally oppose the bills just because they were proposed by the Republicans; rather, they took the position that it was up to each member’s judgment if the bill was right and beneficial to the country. This meant that the tax reform bills passed almost unanimously.

When a session continued overnight, I would sleep on the couch in my office and go to vote, shaking off sleepiness, when the bell rang. I would eat instant ramen for a snack those nights, and after a few months I’d gained weight, but also learned the real taste of ramen.

One time, I told some Korean teenagers that when I was young, Korea was so poor that my big wish was to eat boiled rice to my content. I had no answer to their question of why I did not eat ramen if there was no rice to cook.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).