THERE is a black comedy playing out in our political institutions while war is raging in Marawi.
What appears to be a local political skirmish has become a national issue on account of the fact that behind this political drama is the right of Congress to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation, as defined in Section 21 of Article VI of the Constitution.
Again, I will approach this issue as a non-lawyer, as someone who looks at political institutions as rationally structured in the context of the principle of checks and balances.
The subject of the controversy for which an inquiry was calledby the House of Representatives is the allegation that the provincial government of Ilocos Norte violated the law when it bought second-hand vehicles using funds from its allocation of the tobacco excise tax collections. The allegation is that not only was the bidding process questionable, but also that the procurement of vehicles is not included in the enumeration of allowable expenses in RA 7171 passed in 1991.
If there is any compelling legislative agenda, it is to clarify the relationship between RA 7171 and RA 10351 passed in 2012. RA 7171 is a specific law that only talks of projects that benefit the tobacco farmers, RA 10351, which further amended the National Internal Revenue Code, as amended by RA 9334, has broadened the coverage to include programs that will provide inputs, trainings and other support to tobacco farmers who shift to non-tobacco agricultural production, or develop the tourism potential of tobacco-growing areas.
Section 8 stipulates that the incremental revenues collected from the excise tax on tobacco under RA 8240 shall be exclusively utilized for programs to promote economically viable alternatives for tobacco farmers.
On the surface, if the purpose of Congress is to amend the law or pass a new law, which is the only justification for conducting an inquiry in aid of legislation, then the focus must be on the difficulties which local government units encounter in implementing RA 7171 in relation to RA 10351.
The purpose of the inquiry therefore would have been to determine whether or not the procurement of vehicles is a valid expense and if there is a need to amend the law to reflect such, or whether RA 10351 is enough to allow it, considering that vehicles can be considered as input or support for tobacco farmers who plan to shift to other types of agricultural production, or in the development of tourism in the tobacco-growing areas.
Hence, it is illogical that Congress should frame the inquiry as if it is a prosecutorial proceeding vis-à-vis a violation of a law, with the intent of ascertaining culpability of parties in relation to the procurement of vehicles. Its job is to ascertain whether there is a need to amend the law in relation to the procurement of vehicles.
It is not Congress that is empowered to interpret whether the procurement of vehicles is adequately covered by Section 8 of RA 10351, or whether it is not, and hence the procurement would have amounted to a violation of the law. If any party thinks that there is a violation in the procurement of vehicles, that party should have brought the matter to the Ombudsman for proper investigation.
Besides, Section 21 of Article VI of the Constitution is clear. It mandates Congress to respect the rights of persons appearing in, or affected by, inquiries that it conducts in aid of legislation.
Congress has another power given to it by the Constitution, which is its oversight function as stipulated in Section 22 of Article VI. This oversight function gives Congress the power to inquire on how its laws are being implemented by the executive branch. A careful reading of Section 22, however, implies that only heads of executive departments are subjected to these oversight powers.
Thus, the tobacco excise tax hearings conducted by Congress could not be pursuant to its oversight powers considering that the resource persons invited were rank-and-file employees of the local provincial government of Ilocos Norte, and not heads of departments of the executive branch.
In the final analysis, the only silver lining in this dark comedy that the hearings have become, that has led to the detention of the Ilocos Norte 6 is that the matter will eventually have to be adjudicated by the Supreme Court. It’s about time to revisit Neri v. the Senate, and further clarify the metes and bounds of the powers of Congress to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation and detain its invited resource persons.
This has become an imperative because of the bold statements of leaders of the House of Representatives that their contempt-citing powers are not subject to judicial review, and that the order of the Court of Appeals directing it to release the Ilocos Norte 6 was invalid since it violated the separation of powers. These claims have terrifying implications for they threaten the constitutionally guaranteed right of persons against self-incrimination, and the right of media to protect the identity of their sources. They project Congress’ power to cite for contempt those who invoke these rights and detain them until it adjourns its session as absolute for which there is no remedy.
This is not how constitutional democracy has designed political institutions to behave. This may amount to abuse of discretion for which the Constitution has given the Supreme Court the power of judicial review.