ON a certain level, one would be tempted to say “serves them right” to the four Liberal Party senators at the Senate who had the rug pulled from under their feet on Monday. Senators Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, Bam Aquino and Risa Hontiveros were, quite without warning, stripped of their leadership positions and committee chairmanships in the chamber.
The fatal blow was delivered by boxing champ-cum-Senator Manny Pacquiao, who is turning out to be one of Malacanang’s most obliging allies in the Senate.
At the plenary session that day, Pacquiao stood up to declare vacant the post of Senate President Pro Tempore, occupied by Drilon, and the chairmanships of the committees on agriculture, education and health, held by Pangilinan, Aquino and Hontiveros, respectively. Nobody bothered to question Pacquiao on his motion, and very quickly, 17 of the 23 senators present voted for the change.
One would think that the Senate shake-up was to rationalize and clarify the party alignments in the chamber. Or so, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd would have us believe. Explaining the sudden “reorganization” to reporters late Monday, Pimentel said there had been a “blurring” of the lines between the majority and the minority in the chamber.
“There have been instances where the majority, instead of closing ranks, ended up divided. The majority of senators decided that to best achieve the Senate’s legislative agenda, clear lines have to be drawn,” he said.
And yet, Drilon yielded his position not to a majority senator but to another Liberal Party member, Senator Ralph Recto, who temporarily gave up his Minority Leader position to take up the Senate President Pro Tempore post. (Recto incidentally voted against himself in the reorganization last Monday that elected him to the No. 2 post.)
Confused? You may well be, for in the Senate it is said there are really no political parties as each senator is a party of one – they work only for their own interest. As such, there is no administration or opposition in the chamber, only shifting alignments of majority and minority blocs.
Drilon, Pangilinan and Aquino are members of the former ruling LP, while Hontiveros is a leader of the Akbayan party-list group, a close ally of the LP, under whose mantle she won election to the Senate in 2016.
During the election (actually, horse trading) for the Senate leadership last year, Drilon, Pangilinan, Aquino and Hontiveros, instead of taking themselves honorably into opposition, elected to align themselves with the majority that chose Pimentel, the head of President Duterte’s PDP-Laban party, for the position of Senate President. Recto chose to go with the minority.
The prize, of course, was the coveted committee chairmanships, where much of the work and power in the chamber reside. The four senators have, for the better part of a year, been in the awkward position of enjoying the perks of key Senate posts as members of the majority bloc while trying to remain circumspect as the Duterte administration increasingly took on one controversial issue after another, beginning with the bloody illegal drugs war.
One may well ask how the four senators could still remain with the majority after the jailing of their LP colleague, Senator Leila de Lima, on questionable drug charges.
Well, the decision was taken out of their hands as they have been ejected.
Comeuppance or just desserts that may well be, but what happened to the four senators still disturbs, not least because of what is coming up for debate in the Senate. The suspicion lingers that the Senate leadership may be clearing the decks for a less contentious vote on the death penalty bill. The bill is scheduled for voting on second reading today. While the LP has issued a party stand opposing the measure, its leadership said it would allow individual members to decide how they would vote.
And proposals to amend the Constitution, a priority legislation of the Duterte administration, are pending before the committee on constitutional amendments. Drilon remains chairman of the latter committee but Senator Cynthia Villar, a majority member who took over the agriculture committee from Pangilinan, hinted yesterday that would not be for much longer.
As self-regarding as some of the senators can be, we don’t worry too much when bills as controversial as the death penalty measure, for instance, pass through the unwieldy and rambunctious House, because they will at least get a thorough airing in the notionally more independent Senate.
Pimentel has given assurances that the Senate would remain independent and true to its role as “the last bastion of democracy” in the country.
As for the four LP senators who have just moved into the minority, let’s hope they will be free to examine, vote and criticize, now that they are no longer comfortably “shackled” to the majority.