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  • Writer's pictureThomas Liu

How Taiwan’s Latest US-Style Congressional Reforms Will Change its Political Environment

By Thomas Liu and Vincent Chang

Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (LY) plans to vote and finalize decision on its latest set of Congressional Reforms bills. Some amendments proposed by LY members involve amendments to grant the powers to hold hearings and conduct investigation to the Legislative Yuan. This could mean that Taiwan’s private enterprises and NGOs will soon be more integrated into the legislative process.

However, the exercise of these powers also raises many questions, including potential abuses of power, excessive politicization, or penalties on individuals for failing to appear at hearings. These concerns have sparked many controversies.

Imagine an ordinary questioning session in the Legislative Yuan where legislators from various parties such as like TPP’s Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), KMT’s Hsu Chiao-hsin (徐巧芯), and DPP’s Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) attempt to ask difficult questions in front of the press to show their commitment to a certain topic or stance. But in this scenario, instead of government ministers being put on the spot, the person occupying the podium is instead Terry Gou (郭台銘), the founder of Foxconn, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who may have retired by then, or another Taiwanese tycoon.

Such a politically charged scene might appear on an episode of the television show House of Cards, or become reality in Taiwan’s congress soon.

According to the current reforms in the Legislative Yuan, after implementing hearings rights and investigation powers, the new Legislative Yuan may gradually become an institution with more direct control over the individuals, legal entities, and the private sector. In amendments to the "Legislative Yuan's Powers Exercise Act," Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Wu Tsung-Hsien (吳宗憲) and other proposed the concept of establishing the “investigative committee,” stating that "the investigative committee, in exercising investigative powers, may require government agencies, military units, public and private legal entities, and organizations to provide documents, ledgers, and other related materials within five days."

The Taiwan People's Party (TPP) also proposed that "the Legislative Yuan, by resolution of the plenary session, may set up a “hearing and review committee,” or through a committee resolution, establish a special group for hearing and document review, requesting government agencies, legal persons, civic groups, and related individuals in society to attend the meeting, prepare for questioning, and provide reference materials." The ruling Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) proposal, although not advocating directly for the power to hold hearings, also mentioned a "dual-track system" of investigative and review powers. These proposals indicate that there is a cross-party consensus in the Legislative Yuan towards more comprehensive and thorough institutional reforms.

Hearing Rights and Investigation Power

In an interview with Thomas Liu, Policy Analyst at Safe Spaces, Associate Professor of Law Bruce Liao (廖元豪) at National Chengchi University (NCCU) explained that a hearing is one of the many methods of investigation. He informed us that that investigations methods include providing data, including inquiries directed at public agencies and formal hearings held by the Legislative Yuan. He also mentioned that congressional hearings in the United States can be equivocated with providing testimonies The difference between the proposed "hearings rights" and existing "public hearings" of Taiwan is that the proposed version will mandate compulsory attendance and legal responsibilities for statements made under oath. Thus, establishing the right to hold compulsory hearings is a part of an effort by the Legislative Yuan to strengthen its own investigative powers.

Soon, with the passage of a "Congressional Hearing Powers Act," it would be possible for tycoons and conglomerate heads to be summoned to the Legislative Yuan for questioning and accountability.

Facebook CEO(Mark Zuckerberg)testifies before U.S. Congress(Source: CBS News)

US Congressional Hearings: From Catching Nixon to Reining in Facebook and TikTok

In February this year, the US Senate held a hearing titled "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," addressing the issues of child exploitation and teen suicide due to social media use. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok CEO Shou-Zi Chew, and others attended to answer questions from Senators. Zuckerberg had to face direct criticism by US Senator Lindsey Graham, who accused him of having "blood on his hands," prompting a public apology by Zuckerberg in front of the families of the victims. Besides Zuckerberg and Chew, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Tesla founder Elon Musk have also appeared at various Senate hearings, undergoing scrutiny by representatives of the American people on live broadcast.

Among the most well-known hearings in the history of the US Congress, the most notorious is perhaps the Watergate Hearings investigating President Nixon. Following public knowledge of Nixon’s role in the wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel, the US Senate established the Watergate Committee in 1973 with a vote of 77-0. During the committee's proceedings, White House aide Alexander Butterfield admitted to the placement of taping devices in the Oval Office and in other locations, leading to a political crisis involving the White House, Congress, and US courts. 

The Watergate Hearings is one of the most well-known Congressional hearings. (Source: C-Span)

Nixon resigned amidst widespread public condemnation, becoming the only president in America’s history to resign while in office. The entire hearing was broadcasted "gavel to gavel" on television, captivating the entire nation. Other notable modern hearings include former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks during the Benghazi hearing, such as the phrase "what difference at this point does it make?" The investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 US election, and the 2010 hearing on Goldman Sachs' unethical business practices, all of which created iconic moments on televisions. As of this year, the hearings conducted by the U.S. Congress investigating antisemitism on university campuses have not only resulted in the resignation of the Presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania but have also indirectly led to the current large-scale protests on university campuses.

The Limitations of Taiwan’s Legislative Power: Are Latest Congressional Reforms Necessary?

Turning back to Taiwan, Professor Liao points out that the existing system's flaw is the "lack of coercive power over the private sector." He explains that while the Legislative Yuan can review government documents and summon government officials for questioning, it lacks enforcement when dealing with the private sector, making it difficult even to verify the authenticity of data provided by private entities. However, data acquisition would be much stronger if congress had investigative powers over the private sector and industry. In other words, if, after the reform, administrative departments deliberately withhold information (except for legally confidential matters), provide false information, or fail to attend inquiries, they could face criminal or civil sanctions.

Thus, with the exercise of Hearing and Investigative powers, introducing coercive investigatory force will allow for better supervision of both public and private sectors and enhance the legislative tools of Congress. In the past, government ministers could dance around questions during scheduled sessions meant to provide legislative accountability in the Legislative Yuan or even refuse to cooperate at all. However, this will no longer be possible. The private sector will face more public scrutiny and calls for accountability. When procedures and rules are well established in the future, all actors in Taiwan’s political landscape will be nudged to become more accountable for their statements and actions, particularly during hearings. This should also ensure that the voices of private sectors, such as entrepreneurs and firms, as well as privately funded nonprofits, advocacy groups, and think tanks have a louder voice and receive more attention during the legislative process.

NCCU Professor Yuan-Hao Liao (Source: Yuan-Hao Liao)

Of course, such reforms are not without concerns. Although based on Interpretation No. 585 of the Supreme Court, there is still the potential for legislators to abuse their power after amending their scope of authority, creating a fear that the LY could endlessly empower itself. As the most severe penalties for not cooperating with the Legislative Yuan leads to criminal sanctions, there exists room for abuse. In response, Professor Liao suggests that the criteria for exercising power over the private sector should undergo stricter scrutiny, with its procedures rigorously kept accountable. He cites the United States as an example, where most of the time, the US Senate does not use coercive power against the private sector. Yet, non-cooperation is rare, since, with substantial empowerment, the power of US Senate makes refusing to cooperate likely impossible.

Conclusion: "Hearing Rights and Investigation Powers" Will Renew Taiwanese Politics

The discussion about the "Hearing and Investigation Powers" in the Legislative Yuan has been ongoing for some time, notably after the March 19 shooting incident (319 shooting incident) in 2004 and was particularly supported by bipartisan consensus between 2012 and 2016. However, when both the executive and legislative powers are held by the same party, the DPP, after 2016, it becomes unnecessary to advance these legislations. After all, the President, who were the leader of their political parties when they were elected, were not incentivized to grant the legislature to more power to oversee it. This is a situation that has persisted over the past sixteen years. Following this year's tripartite Legislative Yuan, Lai Ching-te became a president supported by only a legislative minority and allowed the KMT (52 seats) and TPP (8 seats) opposition bloc to gain a majority in the legislature, thus rekindling the prospects for congressional reform.

A more diverse set of regulatory tools implies that political up-and-comers from various parties can showcase their skills differently on the new stage brought about by legislative yuan hearings rights. While the American Variety magazine once described the Watergate Hearings as “the hottest daytime soap opera," there may soon be an analogous sort of political showmanship at display in Taiwan, given the imminence of the changes to the powers of the Legislative Yuan.

This article was previously published on CommonWealth Magazine on May 20, 2024.


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