The brazenness with which Janet Lim Napoles and her accomplices have attacked and corrupted the two houses of Congress, and the equanimity with which the public is viewing the spectacle, are profoundly troubling.
What does it say about our people and our values, if our legislature, whose roots date back to the birth of the nation, cannot fend off or subdue an assault on the integrity of its members and its constitutional responsibility?
What does it say of the leadership of both houses, if they can only watch meekly while the scam mastermind bargains for immunity from prosecution with the Department of Justice, at the expense of the honor of Congress and without regard for the necessity of retribution?
What future can we look forward to if this crisis is being driven by presidential ambitions in 2016, and if we cannot apply quickly and confidently a solution to this breach in our democratic defenses?
It’s prudent to ask these questions now because just a few days ago, our neighbor and Asean partner Thailand was cut off from its democratic moorings by a military coup (the 12th since 1932), which unseated the duly elected government and is now agonizing under the strictures of dictatorial rule.
If this can happen to rich and dynamic Thailand, so can it also happen to our punch-drunk country, which continues to stagger from a power-hungry and delusional administration, if we fail to exercise vigilance.
The first branch of government
In every republican system, except for banana republics, the legislature is the first branch of government, supreme in fact in parliamentary republics.
There’s a logical and traditional reason why Congress is usually regarded by political scientists and historians as “the first branch of government.”
In the US Constitution, after which our Constitution is modeled, Congress is empowered and framed in its first article. As one American political science volume asserts: “Its placement there is no accident. The framers wanted it clear that Congress was to be first among equals of the three branches….each branch is given unique powers, with many overlapping, but it is clear, when push comes to shove, that Congress can trump the other two branches by overriding a presidential veto, by changing the size or jurisdiction of the courts, and by impeaching or removing from office presidents and justices alike.”
In our own Constitution, Congress is accorded top billing. It is empowered and framed in article VI, ahead of the executive (Article VII) and the judicial department (Article VIII).
In his informative book on the Constitution, author and Constitutional Commission member Jose N. Nolledo reports with authority (he was present at the creation): “Article VI on the legislative department was placed ahead of the executive department (Article VII) because the legislative department, while co-equal with the executive department, is the repository of the people’s sovereignty and is given more emphasis and significance.”
As repository of the people’s sovereignty, Congress clearly enjoys high constitutional responsibility—as the embodiment of representative government and as lawmaker.
Time of vulnerability
The crisis brought on by the multi-billion pork barrel scandal has come at a time when Philippine democracy is fraying at the edges. As he completes his fourth year in office, President Benigno Aquino 3rd has a halo of doubt hovering over his head, having failed to arrest unemployment and deepening mass poverty, to accelerate the provision of public services and to modernize infrastructure across the archipelago.
His biggest accomplishments, he claims, are (1) placing under prolonged detention his predecessor President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, by filing countless charges against her, most of which have been dismissed in court; (2) removing by impeachment former chief justice Renato Corona, and (3) forcing the resignation of former Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. This is sick.
Aquino’s use of bribery to remove Corona and Gutierrez and pass controversial legislation in Congress highlighted charges that he reduced Congress to his rubber stamp.
He raised the much-detested pork barrel under his watch by 300 percent.
And there is another controversial fund, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which is under constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court.
The detested pork barrel and Congress’ complicity in Aquino’s arbitrary acts of persecution have helped to make Congress heavily unpopular. This explains why many were secretly applauding the embarrassment caused by the exposé of the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
Esteem for the country’s legislators has traditionally been low. And it plunged to its lowest ever because of their failure to resist bribery and stand up to Aquino.
The administration itself is reeling now from the revelation by Janet Lim Napoles that Budget Secretary Florencio Abad transacted with her and mentored her in the creation of her mind-boggling pork-barrel scam, and that three other cabinet members had coursed their pork allocations through her syndicate. The Palace will take care of its own.
Even so, no institution has been more hard hit by the Napoles affidavit than Congress and its two houses. And no one has suffered more damage to their reputations than the senators and representatives who got lopsided rebates from their pork allocations.
Both the Napoles larceny and her confession (for confession her affidavit is) have hit the legislature like a typhoon. Congress leaders and members are grasping at straws to defend themselves, and are desperately seeking ideas on how, like the Yolanda-ravaged regions, they can rehabilitate their houses and their reputations.
Of the two most affected branches of government—the executive and the legislature—I am more concerned about the lasting impact of this scandal on Congress. It is more vital to the stability of the nation.
If Napoles and corrupt legislators have irreparably damaged this branch, the Republic will suffer. Vital questions –like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB)—await the responsible action and deliberation of Congress. If it cannot get back on its feet quickly, the nation will face severe storms and stresses in the next two years , before the election of a new Congress and a new president.
These questions go down to the question of fitness for leadership of our nation, and fitness to serve in Congress.
Graft in the use of public funds should never be tolerated, and must be fully meted just punishment.
It is fortunate that this crime against the people has been exposed and the media has been unsparing in bringing it out.
The case and cases have to be brought to a just conclusion—wherein honesty and truth can prevail.
We should be very concerned that Napolesgate does not degrade the legislature to the extent of making it ineffective and ineffectual. Already, some say that demoralization is creeping in the ranks.
This is a time for dynamic and creative leadership of both houses of Congress.
Sclerotic leadership will not do the job. Our legislators must seriously consider a change.