I WISH Sen. Antonio Trillanes were well- read, instead of just quarrelsome, for then he might have stumbled on Groucho Marx’s priceless riposte to any organization that would discipline him, kick him out, or bar him from joining.
Marx (no relation to Karl Marx, but also German in his roots) was a great comedian and master of the adlib (they tried to build a TV conversation show around his wisecracks).
In the “cowards and puppets” controversy that Trillanes ignited with a few ill-chosen words, I find myself strangely drawn towards Attila at the gates than to the defenders of the citadel.
Groucho’s idea was to shake up an organization, in order to kill its inertia. Trillanes’ blast rattles the Senate up to the rafters. Some senators, notably Senators J. V. Ejercito and Panfilo Lacson are alarmed over the potential damage to their institution.
I privately hope that the attack by the consummate coup plotter, given a megaphone, will shake the Senate on its axis, and waken it from the doldrums.
Ethics probe, a nothingburger
Groucho’s noble gesture would only be authentic, if one has the courage to resign from the organization.
Trillanes will never resign from the Senate, even if dragged by horses; he’s like a diabetic now, living comfortably on the public till, getting perks like PDAF, DAP, and a travel and representation budget.
The Senate may not even investigate him.
The ethics probe is what contemporary journalists call nowadays “a nothing burger.” A nothing burger, says Oxford, is something that is or turns out to be lacking in substance.
Despite the litany of complaints, an ethics probe of Trillanes may go nowhere, because the senators, those whom Trillanes insulted, are in no hurry to redeem their honor. Ethics chair Vicente Sotto 3rd is in fact looking for an honorable way for Trillanes to get off the hook. Senators may secretly fear that what they do to Trillanes could boomerang on them. The culture of honor among kindred spirits is strong in Congress.
Some say that it is the nature of the Senate to seek compromise in every dispute. This proceeds from the chamber’s constitutional role, which is to serve as a counterbalance to the impulsive character of the House of Representatives and the naturally autocratic tendencies of the Executive. This fits the current political environment to a T.
Does this mean the Senate cannot or will not punish its own? In fact, the Senate, and Congress as a whole, can, and in a lot of ways.
Members of Congress are bound by the Constitution, national statutes, and codes of conduct in their behavior.
Each chamber has the power to punish its members for “disorderly conduct” and by a two-thirds vote, to expel a member.
A member of Congress enjoys parliamentary immunity, which means freedom from liability for any speech or debate (utterances) in the Congress or any committee thereof.
But the member also suffers from several disqualifications or impediments:
Prohibition from appearing as counsel before any court of justice or the electoral tribunals;
Prohibition from being interested financially in any contract with the government;
Prohibition from intervention in any matter before any office of the government for pecuniary benefit.
These rules are real limitations on the conduct of legislators which, when transgressed, can kick back hard.
Who’s who of
In the US, the list of Congress members who have come to grief with ethics laws and rules, is surprisingly lengthy and star-studded. It includes the following historic miscreants:
1. Democratic Speaker Jim Wright (forced to resign over a shady book deal);
2. Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich (fined and reprimanded for lying to the House ethics committee);
3. Ways and means committee chair Dan Rostenskowski (jailed for mail fraud in 1996);
4. Senate finance committee chair Bob Packwood (resigned in 1995 to avoid expulsion for sexual harassment);
5. Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay (resigned in 2006 for violating campaign finance laws);
6.Sen. Ted Stevens (indicted for accepting bribes in 2008).
In the Philippines, the instances of top Congress officials or members punished for unethical conduct are rare. The indictment of Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla for alleged misuse of their PDAF allocations standout in the record. When former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile successfully fought off his own indictment, he accomplished a remarkable feat of self-defense. The detention of Sen. Leila de Lima is equally remarkable.
Because of big blots in the record, members of Congress are the objects of public disdain in the US.
In the Philippines, public distrust of legislators is generally more severe. No Speaker of the House has successfully ran and won election for President in the country. The record is unlikely to change now with the authoritarian tendencies of the 16th Congress.
Trillanes’ accusations do not burnish the reputation of the Senate. They expose the challenging work.
Where ambition goes to die
I first got interested in politics at a time when the Senate was regarded in this country as “a nursery of future Presidents.”
Today, the chamber looks more like “a place where ambition goes to die.” I borrowed the idea from Terence Samuel’s excellent book, The Upper House (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010).
There’s an old joke in both Washington,D. C. and Manila that most senators see a future President when they look in the mirror.
It is indubitably true. Senators like Manny Villar, Panfilo Lacson, and Richard Gordon clearly saw a future President in the mirror, but then they failed to make the vision come true.
Benigno Aquino 3rdhad no such illusion when he was elected to the Senate. It was the Yellow Cult which saw the vision. They got the opportunity to make it happen when former President Cory Aquino died of cancer in 2009. With the help of necropolitics, Smartmatic and yellow media, BSA and Noynoying made history.
Trillanes clearly sees a future President when he looks in the mirror. The problem is, many Filipinos see instead someone who should be behind bars.