NO Speaker of the House of Representatives has stretched the oversight function and contempt power of Congress to their limits more than Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and his chief lieutenants (majority leader Rodolfo Fariñas and House accountability committee chairman Johnny Pimentel). No one has been unthinking enough to do so until now—when the current House has ventured to detain six officials of the Ilocos Norte provincial government on the strength of what it construes as “contempt of the House” or “obstruction of justice”.
The six detained officials, who quickly got the media tag “Ilocos 6,” are Pedro Agcaoili, chairman of the planning and development office; Josephine Calajate, provincial treasurer; Eden Battulayan, Encarnacion Gaor and Genedine Jambaro, staff at the treasurer’s office; and Evangeline Tabulog, provincial budget officer.
Fariñas alleged that the six officials were “refusing to answer questions” and were being “evasive” during the House inquiry into the alleged misuse of P66.45-million of tobacco excise tax funds for the purchase of motor vehicles by the provincial government.
The six officials have been detained in Congress since May 29 after being cited in contempt by the House accountability committee.
Fariñas vs Marcoses
The saga does not end there. Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos is also being threatened with a contempt citation and detention, because she refused to honor a subpoena to appear at the hearing. Pimentel tried to gain added mileage by publicizing the detention quarter he was preparing at the Batasan for Ms Marcos, should she fail to attend the resumption of the inquiry on July 25.
As if one Marcos were not enough, Pimentel has also threatened to cite for contempt and obstruction of justice former senator Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr. for advising his sister not to attend the House hearing, lest she also be detained like the unfortunate six.
The move against the Marcoses is seen by many as a political play by Fariñas, who has largely built his political career through a long alliance with the Marcoses. The weird case of the Ilocos 6 represents a parting of ways going into the 2019 mid-term elections.
Appeals court intervenes
Thankfully, the Court of Appeals has butted into the controversy before the craziness gets worse. The CA’s Special Fourth Division, acting on a petition filed by the Ilocos 6, issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the release from detention of the six provincial officials.
The CA also issued a show-cause order requiring House sergeant-at-arms Roland Detabali to explain why he should not be cited in contempt for defying the CA order and twice rejecting the CA ruling.
House leaders have refused to accept the CA’s orders, claiming that they were invalid as the CA has no jurisdiction over the matter.
In response to the issuance of the writ, House leaders have slapped the CA magistrates with a show-cause order requiring them to explain why they should not be cited in contempt for ordering the release of the six officials.
Whose show-cause order will prevail?
Because of the rank defiance of the CA’s order, the Supreme Court has also gotten into the fray. On July 3, retiring SC Associate Justice Bienvenido Reyes called on his colleagues to continue the fight for judicial independence.
He told his colleagues during his last flag- raising ceremony: “Protect the Supreme Court from unsavory meddling of those who are trying to taint its integrity.”
He cited the threat of Speaker Alvarez to impeach Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno for calling on the CA justices to defy the House’s show- cause order against the three magistrates who issued the ruling.
Case simpler than imagined
The whole case looks more knotted now than a pretzel. But the controversy is much simpler and can be quickly resolved through a proper and less self-serving reading of the Constitution.
When the US was embroiled in an analogous controversy over Congress’ investigative authority, US Chief Justice Earl Warren in Watkins v. United States (1957) wrote pointedly that the power is not without limits. Warren wrote: “There is no general authority to expose private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of Congress… Nor is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency. These are functions of the executive and judicial departments of government. No inquiry is an end in itself; it must be related to, and in furtherance of a legitimate task of the Congress.”
The great journalist and political thinker Walter Lippmann smashed congressional excess to smithereens when the issue recurred with virulence during the Joseph McCarthy hearings in the US Senate:
Lippmann wrote at the time: “The confidence of our own people is profoundly shaken. Our prestige in the world and our claim to be the leader of the leader and defender of the free world have been hurt by McCarthy, asthey never were hurt by the worldwide apparatus of the communist propaganda.
“The heart of the danger the fact that the government has allowed itself to be intimidated by an ambitious and ruthless demagogue.”
“McCarthy’s power is built not upon the constitutional right of Congress to investigate, but upon a flagrant abuse of that right. The abuse of that right is unchecked because the Senate is not observing faithfully its constitutional obligations because of an unnecessary, unwarranted, and unconstitutional acquiescence by the President in the abuse.
“The abuse lies in the taking over by a congressional committee of powers which belong to the executive and to the judicial branch.
“The McCarthy investigation in all this is a usurpation of power which belongs to the executive branch of government.
“Why doesn’t the Senate forbid its own committees to commit this usurpation of power and to bring the government of the United States into such disorder and disrepute?
“The decisive reason for the failure of the Senate to curb McCarthy is that the abuse of power is not often curbed unless the abuse is resisted.”
McCarthy was not so much about anti-communism and witch-hunting, as it was about the abuse of the authority of Congress to investigate.
I quote this commentary at length in order to suggest to the House and to the defenders of the Ilocos 6 where the abuse of power is most vulnerable, and how this controversy can be forcefully faced and then resolved.
Obstruction of injustice
Before he can lawfully assume the vice presidency, Bongbong Marcos has a chance to earn a page in history as the first Filipino to be charged or detained for the offense of “obstruction of injustice.” The only way Pimentel can redeem his name is to revise his charge against Bongbong from “obstruction of justice” to “obstruction of injustice.” This will compensate for the injustice of being cheated in the 2016 elections.
In the spirit then of resisting the abuse of power in the 16th Congress, I urge Bongbong to put Johnny Pimentel’s big words to the test. I urge him to report to the Batasan for arrest and detention by Pimentel.
I will wager a slice of my modest earnings that Pimentel will not make the arrest. He may even shut up.