When Ms. Ruby Tuason or whatever her name is takes the hot seat today at the long-running hearings on the pork barrel scam by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, she will only be the latest float in the long parade of witnesses organized by the committee and the Justice Department.
Her testimony has been pre-sold by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima as the equivalent of a “slam dunk” in basketball, guaranteed to thrill. But there are also misgivings that her tell-all will be more like an “air ball,” a shot that doesn’t even hit the ring. Much like the appearance of Janet Lim-Napoles, who took all the oxygen out of the inquiry by simply saying “no, your honor” to all the questions posed to her by the eager-to-shine senators.
The shift from “truckloads of evidence” to “slam dunk” is not an epiphany for Secretary de Lima. She will remain obsessed with publicity in this affair. After Tuason, she will produce more kiss-and-tell witnesses to be pensioned under her witness protection program.
1.Six months, 16 days and no end in sight
It is now six months and 16 days since the blue ribbon committee started its hearings on August 29, 2013. Everyone involved has gotten older, hopefully, with their health intact (Senate minority leader Juan Ponce Enrile will turn 89 tomorrow). One accountant has calculated that the spectacle has already cost the government over ten million in precious funds that would have been better spent in creating jobs. After all the drama and senatorial posturing, few facts have been established. The public still does not know whether a scam was perpetrated at all, or whether Napoles or some senators were involved.
Frustrating and squalid though the probe may be, it would make matters worse to cut off the hearings without reaching a conclusion. This is a committee acting under the authority of the Senate and inquiring into the evident plunder of public funds by high officials of the government. The country needs to be shown to the bitter end, how billions have been misused or stolen for the pork barrel of our legislators.
2. The best and the brightest?
A second truth to ponder is that the term ”blue ribbon” may be a misnomer for the investigating committee.
Its true name, according to the Senate directory, is Committee on the Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations.
The retention of a blue ribbon committee in the current Senate is a concession to our history and tradition. The American Senate and other congresses do not have one. We created the first blue ribbon committee in 1949, when newly-elected senator Justiniano Montano of Cavite proposed it as a means to investigate the administration of then president Elpidio Quirino.
In American practice, when a panel is billed as “blue ribbon,” such as a blue-ribbon commission, it is to signify that it will investigate a grave question and the panel will be composed of “exceptional” personages. The “blue ribbon” aspect comes from the presentation of the panel as “the best and brightest.” It oftentimes includes experts and academics.
Two notable US blue ribbon panels in history are the Warren Commission which investigated the Kennedy Assassination, and the 9/11 Commission which investigated the September11 terrorist attacks in the US.
In this country, a blue ribbon inquiry is run of the mill.
Our present Blue Ribbon committee consists of 17 regular members and three ex-officio members, nearly all senators, except three. Only senators Vicente Sotto III and Bong Revilla , and Senate President Franklin Drilon are not listed as members; they will resent the impression that they are not among the best and brightest.
Vigilant watchers of the inquiry will also complain about the claim to exceptionalism. The questioning of the witnesses has been second-rate, self-serving.and strictly for media exposure.
3. Congressional Oversight: linchpin of democracy
Congressional oversight is a major component of the constitutional system of checks and balances. The Senate, as well as the Lower house, exercise this function through hearings and selective investigations of executive actions in order to ensure that the president and the bureaucracy are carrying out the laws as Congress intended. How the executive implements the laws is often a point of friction between the two branches.
Author and constitutional law and civil rights litigator Glenn Greenwald contends that congressional oversight is “the linchpin of how democracy works.” Elaborating, he says:
“Oversight is critical, because as a country (meaning the US) we simply do not trust, and never have trusted our government officials to act properly when they can act in secret and with no checks.”
If Americans distrust their public officials, Filipinos distrust theirs even more. Only the paid survey firms, SWS and Pulse Asia, talk about the people trusting government officials and phony trust ratings. Even our public officials, in their heart of hearts, do not have a high opinion of their calling; they are always talking about what other officials are getting away with.
The public’s hope is that what is learned in oversight will be reflected in changes to the laws that give agencies their power and operating funds. There is a command that every inquiry must be conducted in aid of legislation.
The great political philosopher Walter Lippmann cited the abuse that occurs when a congressional committee takes over powers that belong to the executive and to the judicial branch. He warns of a derangement of functions that would ensue. I paraphrase below his key points, and I submit that the blue Ribbon committee would do well to listen:.
“Since the Department of Justice was already investigating the P10-billion pork barrel scam, why is the Senate investigating it as well? If the department has found that wrongdoing was committed, then it is its duty— the duty of the Executive—to take the case to the courts.
For what purpose did the Senate, through the blue ribbon committee, get into the act? Is it presuming to substitute itself for the justice department in investigating the matter. Is there any legislation contemplated or required? Is it investigating anything that is its business as a legislature, which makes the laws and then inquires into whether they are faithfully and efficiently administered and enforced.
If not, says Lippmann, the Senate would be usurping a power which belongs to the executive branch of government.
4. Who is driving this melodrama?
The Senate spectacle bears all the marks of a bad movie,
There’s plenty of overacting, plenty of platitudes, and plenty of hypocrisy and self-promotion.
After six months of inquiry, we still don’t know who is driving this probe. Is it the administration, with blue ribbon chair Teofisto Guingona as stalking horse? Is it Secretary De Lima, with her control of witnesses and witness protection program?
Guingona betrays his partiality by desisting so far from summoning Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and junior DBM officials to shed light in the inquiry. There’s a black hole in the P10-billion scam story, because no money could have been stolen without DBM collusion. This is absurd because a congressional investigation is an investigation of the executive acts. It is not an in-house ethics inquiry in the Senate. That work would belong to another committee.
Can Guingona prove that a scam was perpetrated without DBM confirming it and owning up to its release of the monies?
The integrity of the inquiry hangs on this question. Abad could invoke executive privilege in order to prevent the truth from coming out. But if he does , public opinion will become critical. We will be in Nixon and Watergate territory.
Are the Opposition and the accused senators driving the inquiry through a clever defense strategy? They are the ones under constant attack, yet every time they punch back, the Administration’s destroy-the-opposition strategy is sent reeling. DAP is now a bigger headache than PDAF. Bong Revilla’s revelations have unhinged the scoring.
The media is not just an innocent observer of the hearings. By putting every hearing on live TV, the networks have become a major player in this drama. If they drop the live TV coverage, public interest in the probe will be nada. The inquiry will stop.
There’s a lot of partisanship in the media, as well as a lot of superficiality. The personages touted as legal luminaries do not illuminate at all.
Print media has the advantage of having more time to put two and two together, provide more background, and research the finer points of inquiry.
5. A political or judicial exercise?
During the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, the prosecutors and administration senators swore from beginning to end that the trial was a political, not a judicial, process. Only politics and numbers mattered.
Not so with the pork barrel inquiry. All the actors have carefully concealed the politics of the process. Senator Guingona and other administration senators have played inscrutable. The administration won’t say that it is just a political process. A game of numbers. That would give the game away.
The opposition for its part appears to be playing a crafty rope-a-dope strategy, hoping that De Lima, like George Foreman, will punch herself to exhaustion. The kiss-and-tell witnesses could be unreliable; they are singing in order to avoid prosecution.
If she can invoke basketball as metaphor, the opposition can use boxing in return.
6. The Big Lie and the Multiple Lie
Finally, it is worth recalling that Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave his name to witch-hunting via the Senate inquiry process.
Richard Reeves, writing about Senator McCarthy, wrote about two kinds of lies that the public must zealously guard against. They are:
· First, The Big Lie – a lie that is so gross, so big, that ordinary minds believe it. Adolf Hitler, said Reeves, was a master of the big lie –, notably, his racist lie about the Jews which led to the Holocaust of the second world war.
De Lima’s” truckloads of evidence” looks like a prime example of the big lie.
· Second, The multiple lie – a lie which, like an octopus, has so many tentacles and so many claims that ordinary minds get exhausted in comprehending it. The multiple lie was McCarthy’s specialty. He claimed that there were communists all over the US government and in American society. He was so successful, even Hollywood was subjected to a witch-hunt.
The tale of the whistleblowers, with so many witnesses, and Benhur-Luy forging countless signatures, is a multiple lie.
And so, with bated breath, I await Ruby Tuason’s testimony today. Let’s see whether she can advance the public’s hope that this costly Senate investigation will turn up a final nail on the coffin of the pork barrel, and help in nailing the DAP as well.