Get the Senate some rest, and rest from the Senate

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FRANCISCO S. TATAD

FRANCISCO S. TATAD

IF by “gentleman” we mean someone who never insults anybody unintentionally, Senators Richard Gordon and Antonio Trillanes 4th proclaimed their gentlemanly status quite convincingly when they exchanged blistering insults during last week’s hearing of the Senate blue ribbon committee. The rules of parliamentary procedure, as we find them in Robert’s Rules of Order, Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Procedure, Floyd Riddick’s Parliamentary Procedure, or Sir Erskine May’s Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, and the actual public standing of the Philippine Senate became the first casualties of this exchange. So, we are now hearing questions about the need for this committee, and indeed for the entire Senate.

It all began when Trillanes suggested that the committee invite President Rodrigo Duterte’s eldest son Paolo, vice mayor of Davao City, and son-in-law Maneses Carpio, lawyer-husband of the President’s daughter Sara, who is the mayor of Davao City, to shed light on their “rumored involvement” in the P6.4 billion illegal drug shipment from China, which arrived in Manila on May 17, 2017, went uninspected through the Bureau of Customs’ “green lane” and landed in a private warehouse in Valenzuela City on May 24.

Comite de absuelto
Gordon, who chairs the committee, rejected the suggestion, saying the allegations against DU30’s son and son-in-law were all “hearsay” which could not be dignified by the committee. The Senate is “not a cockpit of rumors,” he said. This drew an angry response from Trillanes who suggested the committee rather than Gordon alone decide the issue; he accused the chair of turning the hearing into a “one-man show” and the committee into a “comite de absuelto”—an exoneration (or absolution) committee.

Gordon riposted that “every time he (Trillanes) does not like it, he will conduct a coup and he will be forgiven”—an obvious reference to the former Navy officer’s participation in the 2003 military coup attempt against then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for which he was jailed before he ran successfully for the Senate. Gordon threatened to charge the former Navy officer with misconduct before the Senate ethics committee and have him expelled, if necessary.

Trillanes returned the compliment by talking about how Gordon, when he was chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, “barricaded himself” inside Subic to resist the takeover by President Joseph Estrada’s appointee. People watching the exchange feared the two gentlemen would come to blows, but Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto moved to suspend the hearing to allow tempers to cool down. The two gentlemen obviously did not want to eat into the turf of Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who is the only professional boxer in the Senate. So neither of them punched the other. But the reputation of the Senate, which is currently observing its centennial, could not have sunk lower had the exchange degenerated into the use of the Queensberry rules.

Not the Senate alone
As a former senator, I am genuinely pained by all this. In my youth, I used to spend whole afternoons listening to the Senate floor debates. Even the least of them were uniformly instructive. But all that has changed. The last worthwhile Senate speech I heard was years ago, when I was still the Senate Majority Leader, when the TV networks still found it worthwhile to cover live our proceedings. Still, I continue to hope that as the nation’s highest deliberative body, the Senate could still break out of the mold that has stifled the use of reason and the intellect and imprisoned our state institutions in mediocrity, amorality and low taste.

In the past, legal luminaries like Senators Claro M. Recto, Cipriano Primicias, Arturo Tolentino, Lorenzo Tañada, Ferdinand Marcos and others could allow an unschooled zacatero like Amang Rodriguez to become Senate President, and “the beautiful Roger”, as the Manila Chronicle’s lead columnist I. P. Soliongco immortalized the movie actor Rogelio de la Rosa, who became a senator in 1957 and ran briefly as a presidential candidate three years later only to withdraw in favor of his former brother-in-law, Vice President Diosdado Macapagal, to sit among them as a peer without risking the dignity of the Senate.

Taking more hits
But the institution has since taken more serious hits. Since 2001, we have seen mother and son, father and son, brother and sister, brother and half-brother take their place simultaneously in the 24-member Senate, in total contempt of the constitutional ban on political dynasties, and the fact that the institution is meant to represent at least 105 million Filipinos consisting of over 20 million families.

In 2004, one senator had to hire a personal interpreter to translate the English proceedings into the native tongue. He was not prepared to sit in a deliberative assembly where English was the working language, yet he was reelected after six years. In 2010, 2013, and even in 2016, several improbable candidates were elected senators because of the large-scale manipulation of the automated election, courtesy of the Venezuelan technology provider, Smartmatic.

In 2016, Pacquiao, the boxer, entered the Senate. The 146-pounder had won 59 of his 68 fights, 38 by knockout, and snatched 11 major world titles—the first ever to win the lineal championship in five different weight classes. The once-poor boy from Sarangani is now a billionaire; the second highest paid athlete in the world, according to Forbes magazine. But his parliamentary skills have not exceeded his boxing skills. Last July, he lost his last fight to Australia’s Jeff Horn in Brisbane, to his Filipino fans’ angry shouts of “hometown decision.” The Department of Foreign Affairs showed great restraint in not filing a diplomatic protest against Australia for “humiliating” a sitting Philippine senator in the ring.

In the Senate, Pacquiao remains determined to punch above his weight. As a newly minted Protestant, he now quotes the Bible to justify his support of the drug killings and DU30’s fevered push for the capital sentence for various crimes except plunder which could affect favored allies. Some of his friends want him to run for President after DU30 steps down. To many Filipinos, Pacquiao—not Trillanes, Gordon or Pimentel 3rd—is the true image and measure of the Senate today.

In his classic work The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot defines the functions of Parliament to include not only the legislative and elective, but also the informing, expressive, and teaching functions. Except for the elective, the others are also the functions of the Senate: to enact good laws, to inform the people of what the State has a duty to provide, to express the will of the electorate, to teach the nation what it does not know. But the Senators may have succeeded in distracting the Senate from much of these functions.

Subverting the Constitution
By turning committee inquiries into a public lynching of those accused of wrongdoing, the Senate has tried to give the impression this is all for the common good. Not so. Under the Constitution, “the Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.” But “inquiries in aid of legislation” are now conducted like police investigations, where suspects who might be summarily executed if they were caught in the drug war are routinely browbeaten by legislators whose first duty is to prevent their inquiry from turning into an inquisition or a fishing expedition.

As wrong as it is to turn any legislative inquiry into an inquisition, it is “wronger” still to grill certain witnesses in such inquisition as though they were on a “hit list,” while protecting others like “sacred cows.” This was Trillanes’s complaint in the blue ribbon probe. Although some people had been killed in the drug war after their names were mentioned by PDU30, the committee could not ask some individuals to answer questions in the drug-related inquiry because they happened to be related to DU30.

The customs broker who had earlier tried to implicate the President’s son in the customs mess has since recanted, and blamed “fake news” for everything. But it remains to be seen which narrative the public would believe.

Abolishing blue ribbon
Some years ago, then-Senate President Neptali Gonzales in a senators’ caucus proposed that the blue ribbon committee be abolished on the ground that “it’s not the Senate’s business to investigate.” As Majority Leader, I supported this move. But the late Sen. Ernesto Maceda, as committee chair, pleaded that blue ribbon gave the Senate its only clout vis-a-vis the Executive. Abolish it, and Malacañang would simply ignore us, Maceda warned. Evidently, the committee took to heart those words.

In 2000, the committee, under the chairmanship of Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr., investigated charges of bribe-taking against President Joseph Estrada, first aired by Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Chavit Singson and repeated on the Senate floor by then Minority Leader Teofisto Guingona, Jr. As chair of the rules committee, I tried to stop the investigation on the ground that under the Constitution, the Senate cannot investigate a sitting President, or any impeachable official for that matter, unless and until he has been impeached by the House of Representatives and the Articles of Impeachment are already with the Senate. In which case, the entire Senate, acting as an impeachment court, not just one committee, will forthwith try the President.

To my utter chagrin, not a single soul in the superficial media ever saw this point, and only the late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago joined me in standing for the Constitution and the Rules of the Senate. Everyone else wanted to investigate; so after Estrada was impeached by the House, he went through a second round of grilling by the senator-judges on the same charges they had earlier investigated. Thus was Estrada robbed of his constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. None of those who had participated in the committee investigation ever recused themselves during the trial, which was cut short when the prosecution walked out and brought their case to EDSA.

Something similar was about to happen in the case of Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Juan Andres Bautista whom some senators had wanted to investigate for allegedly amassing P1.299 billion during the 2016 elections, and hiding his stash in 35 separate bank accounts in an obscure rural (thrift) bank. Happily, the last senator who had wanted to grill Bautista finally backed off after certain parties filed their impeachment complaint against the Comelec chair. But this has not completely eased our problems with the Senate, which are also our problems with the House, and the rest of government.

A giant albatross
The present Congress with all its amoral leaders and unprincipled turncoats has become a national disgrace, a giant albatross around our people’s necks. We have to get rid of it. We need only a few good laws, and for this we do not need an oversized Congress, which has to churn out laws no matter how harmful, irrelevant or stupid, just because its duty is to make laws. Instead of maintaining a white elephant that costs billions that could be used for more productive purposes, is it not possible to convene all the provincial governors and city mayors once a year, for at least 60 days, to enact a General Appropriations Act, which is the only legislation the government cannot do without, and all the revenue-making and other laws which are deemed indispensable and urgent?

I have a sneaking suspicion this idea could find a sympathetic chord in PDU30, and I would not mind him claiming its authorship. Some people, however, are bound to ask: If we could replace the Congress, could we not also replace the President?

fstatad@gmail.com

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