The Senate blue ribbon committee affair must have alarmed such a number of people that wherever I have gone these days, one question kept coming up–isn’t it time to abolish the Senate? Many seem to feel the inmates are now running the madhouse, and the only thing to do is to shut it down. I have had to answer, the question is not whether it’s time, but how?
I take no comfort in it at all. I used to be a proud member of the Senate. In 1992, after ten years in the Cabinet, six years in the Batasan, and so many years in journalism, I landed in the Senate. This was long before the august body got embroiled in bribery, grand theft and the uncontrolled grandstanding of its most freewheeling members.
I served two consecutive terms, mostly as chairman of the Committee on Rules and Senate majority leader to five Senate presidents. I authored and sponsored a number of important legislations, debated major national and international issues, and produced, among other things, two books of speeches from the Floor, which not many others have done in the long history of the Senate. In an extreme act of generosity, the gentler souls in the press called me “the Moral Conscience of the Senate.”
I was proud of the Senate. This is why I am not embarrassed when people still call me “Senator,” even though I have long left the office, and it seems to mean so little to be a senator these days. Indeed, things have changed. No longer is the Senate the august body where men and women served with honor, patriotism and wisdom and argued against their own personal interests in favor of the common good.
Mediocrity and opportunism persist. It seems that one has to be certifiably unfit in order to fit; the highest distinction often goes to the most unfit. Still we have a right to expect some things from this unprepossessing elite. Although their duty is to make laws, we expect them to know that we do not need a law every time a problem arises; certain things are always right and no longer need to be legislated, and certain things are always wrong and can never be legislated.
But as the nation is governed by a Constitution, and the Senate by its own Rules, people expect each of the senators to know a little of these things. This is an irreducible minimum requirement. Neither do we want them to commit plunder and get away with it simply by accusing others of their own crimes. Nor do we want them to take bribes from smugglers, drug traffickers, gambling lords, and other criminal lords, or even from the President himself who wants to control Congress by corrupting its members.
But many of them have committed crimes, and have not been prosecuted, much less punished. In 2012, they took a bribe from the Office of the President, which used the unconstitutional Priority Development Assistance Fund and the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program to remove a sitting Chief Justice, who now turns out to be far more innocent than any of his impenitent congressmen-accusers and prosecutors and senator-judges.
This irretrievably tarred the Senate when it failed to impose any sanctions on the bribe-takers. Unprosecuted and unpunished, some of them have now morphed into accusers, investigators and judges, all rolled into one, of the unlucky object of their inquisitorial impulses. This is the great scandal that has caused the rising clamor against the Senate.
Unable to stop Senators Antonio Trillanes 4th, Alan Peter Cayetano and Aquilino Pimentel 3rd from using the blue ribbon committee for their political ends, many have come to believe the only way to defang the three young terrors is to take away the committee, which has become an instrument of political mayhem.
Procedurally speaking, this should not be too complicated. It would require no more than a motion on the Floor, which the Senate could quickly act upon if it was so minded. Some years back, then Senate President Neptali Gonzales of happy memory had proposed its abolition, saying it was not the Senate’s business to investigate or to try any criminal suspect. It was something for the police, the prosecutors and the courts, he said.
In fact, were the Senate to investigate any such suspect, in violation of the Constitution and its Rules, and ask the Ombudsman to file criminal charges against him or her afterward, the latter would still have to conduct its own investigation before filing any charges, as though the Senate had never investigated. This would be the exact situation of the alleged pork barrel “queen,” Janet Lim Napoles, despite and after her nearly interminable “inquiry” by the Senate. So the late former Senate President’s point was well put.
However, the committee chair then pleaded that the Blue Ribbon “investigations” gave the Senate the only way to assert its power vis-a-vis the Executive, which tended to overreach. Then as now, it was not much of an argument, for any Senator worth his salt could always use the Privilege Hour or the “Question of personal and collective privilege” or the Question Hour to put anything to the Executive.
But Senate camaraderie prevented Gonzales from pursuing his point. He did not want to divide the House on the issue, and so he yielded. The unhappy result of that yielding was the series of abuses that soon followed. The most egregious of those abuses was the committee’s unconstitutional decision years later, which as chair of the Rules Committee then I had tried to prevent, to investigate a sitting President. Under the Constitution, Congress cannot investigate the President unless he has already been impeached.
To abolish the committee, Senate Majority Leader Cayetano, as Rules committee chair, will have to move the appropriate motion on the Floor, if the body so desires. But Cayetano is one of those who are gravely misusing the committee for their own ends. And Senate President Franklin Drilon will not risk the displeasure of Malacañang and its attack dogs by suggesting that the committee be now scrapped.
So it might prove easier to shut down the Senate instead. A revolutionary government or a new Constitution would be needed to physically abolish the Senate. But simply by complying with the order of the Supreme Court to prosecute all those who had misused the PDAF and the DAP, and sending to jail the great majority of the senators who had taken a bribe to remove Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012 and who had misused the pork barrel system in any number of ways, a patriotic band of lawyers could effectively shut down the Senate.
This would put the majority of the senators in jail, leaving only five or so in office, not enough to constitute a quorum and do business. Without the Senate, the House of Representatives would itself be unable to operate, assuming the majority of the congressmen have not bunked in with their Senate colleagues. So the bicameral Congress will be out until new members are elected, assuming the Constitution remains unchanged. That, however, could change.
The Senate could disappear in a unicameral parliamentary government, or under a more radical system that would do away with Congress, and instead allow the provincial governors and city mayors to sit as a legislative body for sixty days or so once a year to enact the General Appropriations Act and some badly needed laws.
This radical reform would make the government considerably much smaller, and save the taxpayers billions of pesos which they have been wasting on a do-nothing Congress whose members, with a few notable exceptions, have made looting their principal expertise. It is one reform whose time has come, but don’t look at it as a stand-alone proposition. Look at it rather as a necessary component of, and principal support for, regime and systems change, which is what the country truly and urgently needs.