NO big controversies rocked the Senate in 2015, unlike in the two previous years when some members of the chamber were accused of misusing their priority development assistance fund (PDAF) or pork barrel which led to the incarceration of three senators.
The chamber managed to show its independence even if most of its members were perceived to be allied with the Administration.
Senator Grace Poe, who was part of the administration coalition during the 2013 mid-term elections, led the investigation of the Mamasapano massacre that left more than 60 people dead, including 44 members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF).
After conducting 10 hearings—five open sessions and five executive sessions—Poe’s committee concluded that President Benigno Aquino 3rd is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the Mamasapano mission.
The Senate panel emphasized in its report that the President could have saved the lives of the 44 police commandos had he stepped in and displayed stronger leadership after learning about the incident earlier that day.
Poe also noted in the committee report that as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the President exercises great power and has vast resources at his disposal and the decision not to use that power should be explained.
Aquino and some cabinet and security officials who were with him in Zamboanga City that day could have discussed and shared the information they have received so that the coordination between the military and police could have been hastened.
Among those who were with Aquino on January 25 but failed to act accordingly were then Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces chief Gregorio Catapang and PNP Officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina.
“As to the President, he is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the Mamasapano mission,” Poe said, citing the findings of the Senate panel which was later signed by the majority members of the Senate.
Aside from holding Aquino liable for the massacre, the committee report also recommended the filing of charges against resigned police chief Alan Purisima, former SAF commander Getulio Napeñas and other officials.
Purisima, a close friend of the President, was involved in the final planning of Oplan Exodus despite serving the suspension order issued by the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the graft complaint filed against him.
The committee report on the Mamasapano massacre somehow showed that Malacañang is not in control of the Senate even if a number of its members are allied with the administration.
Malacañang also failed to convince the chamber to expedite the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Instead of passing the draft BBL submitted by the Office of the President, the Senate Committee on Local Government introduced a substitute version called the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR).
The President personally handed the proposed law to the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives and appealed to them to fasttrack its passage.
Once the draft was approved by Congress, a plebiscite will be held and a transition authority will be created. Under the original plan, an election for the new Bangsamoro region will be held in 2016 synchronized with the national and local elections.
However, because of the constitutional infirmities found on the proposed law, the Senate decided to conduct separate hearings to fix certain provisions in the bill.
Senator Miriam Santiago, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments and Revision of Codes, said that the BBL is unconstitutional because it violates the principle of constitutional supremacy.
She pointed out that the agreement establishes not a mere autonomous region as provided for by the Constitution, but a substate which will exercise certain sovereign powers, an authority reserved only for the central government.
Santiago’s committee conducted two hearings on the legality of the measure and submitted its report to the committee on local government, the main panel handling the BBL.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., head of the committee, during his consultations with stakeholders in Mindanao learned that the government panel tasked to make the BBL draft did not consult those that will be affected by the proposed law
To make the BBL acceptable not only to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) but also to other stakeholders, Marcos came up with a substitute bill which is now being debated in plenary.
The senator admitted the bill has a slim chance of being passed during the remaining months of the Aquino Administration.
The 2016 elections, he said, will have an impact on the BLBAR process because most of the lawmakers who are running next year may no longer be able to attend session starting next year. Marcos however gave assurances that the Senate will continue to work on the bill and pass it on third and final reading if they can.
If the measure is not passed during the Aquino Administration, it can be refiled and the next Congress can continue with the deliberations.
“We have a new rule that was adopted in the last Congress that we can take note of the findings in previous hearings on the same subject so there is no need to start again,” Marcos explained.
While the Senate showed its independence on the BBL controversy, the same cannot be said on the blue ribbon sub-committee hearings on the alleged corruption activities of Vice President Jejomar Binay and son Makati Mayor Erwin Jejomar Binay Jr. The investigation was seen as a tool to bring down the popularity of the vice president who used to top presidential surveys.
The committee started its probe on the alleged overpricing of the P2.7 billion Makati City Hall building 2 and the corruption charges involving the Binays on August 20, 2014.
One year after, the members of the sub-committee headed by Senator Aquilino Pimentel 3rd have not wrapped up the investigation, which went beyond the original resolution filed by Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th seeking the probe in aid of legislation.
The Vice President turned down invitations for him to attend the hearings but his son appeared for the first hearing but refused to go back. He was only forced to appear again after the sub-panel issued a warrant for his arrest.
Pimentel justified the lengthy investigation, maintaining that it is necessary to bring out the truth.