Senate at low tide: Upper house no more, now chamber of insults



First word:
TO understand what has happened to the Senate in the 17th Congress – and why it has mutated from being a chamber of deliberation to a chamber of rancor, begin with one event on July 3, 2017. This was the time when Sen. Antonio Trillanes 3rd first insulted the chamber and his colleagues, and the chamber, singly and collectively, did nothing in response.

That Monday, Trillanes declared at a press conference that the Senate had been reduced from being the “last bastion of democracy,” to a chamber of “puppets” under the Duterte administration.

He branded the Senate as one of the most damaged institutions since Duterte took office.

“Itong Senado na dati ay ‘yan yung last bastion of democracy e ngayon, wala na, para na rin kaming mga tuta nitong administrasyon na ’to. Ni ayaw mag-imbestiga e.”

“Dito ako makakakita ng mga senador na takot, kaalyado ka na lang kasi ayaw mo aminin na takot ka e,” he said. (Here I see senators who are afraid, mere allies who cannot admit to being cowed.)

Trillanes accused some of the chairs of the Senate committees tasked to investigate the “abuses” of the administration of refusing to do their jobs.

He charged: “Those who should call out the executive for errors and wrongdoing, are cowardly…Yung mga dapat sana na pumuna e wala e, sila yung mga bahag ang buntot.”

This heavy charge, an insult by any name, did not receive any rebuke from Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd or any of Trillanes’

This heavy charge, an insult by any name, did not receive any rebuke from Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd or any of Trillanes’ colleagues. No one protested the accusations, let alone challenged Trillanes. Instead, the chamber of 24 senators bore their resentment in silence.

Trillanes vs Gordon
No one remembers the incident now because the media forgot about it and turned their attention to the battle for Marawi and martial law in Mindanao.

But one senator did not forget the incident—Senator Trillanes. He took it as a sign that the chamber would not stand up to him if he plays hardball, and no matter how rough he plays. The chamber would repair to its tradition of compromise as the best policy in dealing with his intemperate remarks.

After the flare-up with blue ribbon committee chairman Sen. Richard Gordon in the August 29 hearing, Trillanes has taunted his antagonist, telling him to go ahead file an ethics complaint. He boasted that he was not afraid of Duterte, so why would he be afraid of Gordon.

Significantly, the dust-up occurred because Gordon turned down Trillanes’ motion to summon to the Senate Duterte ‘s son, Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, and the President’s son in-in-law, Manases Carpio, the husband of Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

Trillanes accused the committee of lawyering for Duterte and Carpio. He accused the committee of badgering witnesses whenever the issue involved relatives of the President. When Gordon dared him toprove his accusation, Trillanes said the panel had become a “comite de absuelto” (committee for absolution). Thereafter, the two traded accusations, Trillanes of staging a coup whenever he could not get his way, and Gordon of barricading himself in Subic to prevent his being replaced by President Joseph Estrada.

Senate as upper house
There is a reason why the Senate is called “the upper house”. By practice and tradition, the Senate is the anchor of prudent self-government; it is the place for careful deliberation over the nation’s laws. Here, the important debate on public policy takes place in order to receive its fullest hearing in the chamber.

One American author writes that “the Senate’s constitutional role is to serve as a counterbalance to the potentially impulsive character of the House and the naturally autocratic tendencies of the Executive.”

The role of a revising chamber is to scrutinize legislation that may have been drafted over-hastily in the lower house, and to suggest amendments that the lower house may nevertheless reject if it wishes to. In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords can no longer prevent the passage of most bills, but it must be given an opportunity to debate them and propose amendments, and can thereby delay the passage of a bill with which it disagrees.

In recent times, parliamentary systems have tended to weaken the powers of upper houses relative to their lower counterparts. Some upper houses have been abolished completely; others have had their powers reduced by constitutional or legislative amendments.

In presidential systems, the upper house is frequently given other powers to compensate for its restrictions: Executive appointments, to the cabinet and other offices, usually require its approval.

It frequently has the sole authority to give consent to or denounce foreign treaties.

Hardball vs softball
Trillanes shows little awareness of the Senate’s role. He is mainly interested in playing political hardball in order to attain his objectives.

Political hardball, according to William Safire’s Political Dictionary, refers essentially to rough political tactics, which are stronger than practical politics or pranks.

While Trillanes is quick to use rough tactics and intemperate language, his colleagues are ever conscious of parliamentary rules. It’s the sort of situation which in ordinary encounters results in fisticuffs. Senators dread the prospect of their members engaged in a fistfight over an argument.

In the language of modern business management, Trillanes plays hardball, while his Senate colleagues play softball. The allusion to sports is deliberate.

The Harvard Business School studies hardball and softball competitive strategies in business competition.

There is a book entitled Hardball by George Stalk and Rob Lachenauer (Hardball, Harvard Business School Press, 2004).

The authors write: “The hardball leaders will push competitive advantage to the point where competitors are squeezed and even feel pain. Competitors can play softball, which means using non-strategic means to get society to bend its rules to hobble the success of its hardball opponents.”

Trillanes’ kryptonite
There’s one bump in the road ahead for Trillanes.

n 2019, his stint in the Senate will be finished, kaput.

Along with Senators Escudero, Honasan, Legarda and Pimentel, Trillanes will be out of office on June 30, 2019, because that will be the end of their second term. They cannot stand for re-election.

In contrast, fellow incumbent Senators Angara, Aquino, Binay, Ejercito, Poe, and Villar can run for re-election to a second term. In Philippine senatorial elections, incumbents are hard to unseat.

Trillanes will be hit by his kryptonite. Or he can succeed with a coup attempt. Honasan, the other coup veteran, will be hit by the same.

Those who cannot stand Trillanes’ politics can look forward to his retirement on June 30, 2019. But that is still a long wait. Trillanes can still hurl many insults before then.


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