A diminished Senate

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

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.

antonio.contreras@manilatimes.net

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10 Comments

  1. ever in its history was the Senate so debased than having the spectacle of having three of its members imprisoned all at the same time.
    —————————-

    More than 3 should of been arrested and imprisoned.
    40 past and present senators are on the COA and Napoles list as having stolen the pork barrel fund.

    De Lima only charged the 3 opposition senators.

  2. Try to detect if there is Nationalism among the Senators. Start from Sen Ponce Enrile. What do you think? Are they for the People or for something else?

  3. Thank you for your brilliant idea, senate became an investigating body were actors, boxer, businessmen,TV personalities are the judges and they can only decide on the merit of the case on how much they can get. They can be bribe because somebody is bribing them, what a shame, this institution now is the milking cow of the politician, I would suggest they abolish the present structure and senators are to be elected by region or to be appointed by the Prime Minister or the President.( co terminus)

  4. Are you implying that the death of Mirriam removed the brilliance of the Senate? I completely disagree with your statements. She may be brilliant but there are many more brilliant senators like Coco 0Pimentel, a bar topnocher, Bam Aquino a Summa cum Laude. She is brilliant but she is not a bar topnocher or a summa cum Laude in UP. I agree that there are elected senators that were elected that did not even have a college degree. That is democracy, the rule of the majority and not the educational decree made. If that is the case, how can you elect a known murderer and a thug as president ?

    • If you are equating brilliance to good grades from school assessments or results of standardized and paper-pencil tests taken in matter of hours, then you have totally got it all wrong. Even intelligence is multiple and not a good point of comparing individual capabilities. I tell you, there are many topnochers out there but not as brilliant. And as I see it, a thug murderer is showing more brilliance than a Wharton grad.

  5. THE SENATE IS A DESTROYED INSTITUTION AT WALA NG PRESTIGE. BINASTOS NI DELILAH HALIMAW AT SONIA TRILLILING ANG SENADO WHICH TO THE EYE OF THE PILIPINO PEOPLE IS A MOCKERY TO THE SENATE. BUT, WALA MAN LANG DESCIPLINARY ACTION EQUIVALENT TO HALIMAW AND SONIA’S DEMEANOR.

    PWEDE LANG PA LANG MAG BULLY ANG MGA MEMBERS NG SENADO AT THE EXPENSE OF THE PRESTIGIOUS NAME OF THE SENATE.

    THE SENATE SHOULD REPAIR THEIR IMAGE AND DO SOME DAMAGE CONTROL DONE BY DELILAH HALIMAW AND SONIA TRILLILING.

    THE FILIINO PEOPLE IS WATCHING!

  6. Is there any decency left in the Senate? From the late CJ Corona to Leila Delima, the Senate now becomes a gathering of clowns. Mostly are thieves, other are whores.

  7. Yes I agree. The Senators must be elected by province to have them under the review of their province. Or else, like you stated, just abolish it. It is serving no useful purpose to the country. It only serves political coalitions and parties.

  8. As a lawmaking body, the Senate then was composed of lawyers. But when showbiz personalities entered its halls, elements native to entertainment like grandstanding, character assassination, comedic shows, shallow discourses have manifested accordingly. When biznez personalities joined in, well, matters beneficial to their own biznez interests took precedence. Inasmuch as the legislative branch is a law-making body, would it be possible to quality lawyers only to covet a senate seat? The same is true for the house of representatives. Behold them, now, who are conducting hearings carried by the national TV network. Their resource persons, inmates as they are, can better express themselves either in the English or Filipino tongue. But there is such a thing as “staff development program.”