The death of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago may, in fact, be symbolic of a Senate that has lost its brilliance and has been so diminished.
No, don’t get me wrong. The decline of the Senate as an institution did not start with Senator Leila de Lima barging in at the tail end of the last elections, only to walk out from its halls not only once but twice. After all, she is not the first Senator who walked out from the Senate in recent memory. The other Senator who walked out, but unlike Senator De Lima, got away with it, was Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago herself.
The Senate was doomed to eventually decline in stature the moment it was designed as a national body with a large constituency. The Senate is ideally the venue for a higher level of integration and synthesis of political interests, in that it is a smaller house of Congress with only 24 members. Elected with a national constituency, the Senate is supposed to be the check to the relatively more parochial House of Representatives whose members are elected by districts, or by party list, and therefore, are expected to be bearers of narrower constituency interests.
By design, this structure worked perfectly well in an electoral landscape where information and communication technologies were still developing that the only reliable mode of mass communication was the transistor radio, that only candidates with national stature as statespersons, carried by political parties that also have national levels of organization, could possibly win. Thus, the Senate saw the presence of intellectual giants in Philippine politics gracing its august halls. Since radio was the only means to reach a mass audience, people gravitated more toward substance and discursive skills and less toward appearance and celebrity status.
But such era was soon replaced by the advent of television, and later on, by the internet. It is during this time that a national constituency that gave the Senate its exalted status as the home of intellectual giants became the structural enabler for appearance and celebrity to take over substance and statesmanship. We saw the ease by which boxers, noontime show hosts, actors, newsreaders, and pretty faces win over experience and academic credentials. The training in statesmanship supposed to be provided by political parties was compromised when parties became weaker and dispensable in winning national elections.
It is frustrating to see some people getting elected to the Senate just because they are famous, or have a popular surname, or an attractive face, or a compelling and sellable narrative, yet would not even pass an exam in introductory political science. I am tired of someone becoming a senator when you know you are far more qualified to sit in it, except that you have the wrong parents, or have the wrong profession. Call it intellectual arrogance, or simply griping, but I am sure many people can relate to the frustration of getting a Senate that we do not deserve.
Thus, the diminution of the Senate to what it is now is structurally rooted to a politics of appearance enabled by an image-fixated electorate, magnified by a national mandate that reduces winnability to being popular. Faced with this configuration, to even expect that the Senate will rise above itself would be too much to ask. Whatever brilliance is left in a few of its members succumbed to mediocrity, and took another hit when Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago left its halls. The late Miriam, in so many instances, wished death to visit her for being cursed with a company like her colleagues.
And events in the recent past would prove it.
When the Senate presided over the aborted impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada, we already saw a dress rehearsal of the worse that was yet to come. And it happened during the Corona impeachment when only three senators rose above transactional politics to honor the Constitution. The Corona impeachment dramatized the unraveling of the Senate as an instrument for the rule of law and the Constitution, and for intelligent debate, and has become a venue for empty political grandstanding, to settle political debts and to inflict suffering on political enemies. Never in its history was the Senate so debased than having the spectacle of having three of its members imprisoned all at the same time.
And we saw a repeat of this in what could have been the longest public hearing in its history, which targeted then Vice President Jojo Binay. We saw the brazen use of privilege, not to mention power point presentations, to demolish a political enemy. We saw the spectacle of senators now presenting their own compromised witnesses to demolish political targets.
And now, what we are witnessing in the de Lima spectacle is nothing but the Senate living up to, if not aggravating, its diminished status, an obscene continuation of a pattern that has a good chance of being sustained until the day we will be wise enough to overhaul, if not abolish it.