A friend wrote me to say that watching the House and Senate inquiries this week, she could not tell which was the travesty and which was the parody of the oversight function of Congress.
I told her that never in my lifetime had I seen so many crooks assembled in Congress in one sitting; but you “can never can tell,” to use one movie personality’s sublime quotable quote, since this is Congress we are talking about.
British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill considered the oversight function as the most important responsibility of a legislature. Specifically, Congress exercises such oversight by keeping watch over the executive in the administration and execution of the laws.
And it conducts, when the circumstances warrant, a legislative inquiry to hold the executive to account.
Watching the hearings unfold (I shuttled between the two inquiries), I was hard put to find any sterling show of responsibility by either chamber. Nor could I see any sensible reason why the hearings were being broadcast live by the TV networks.
From the subject of the inquiry, to the selection of witnesses, to the line of questioning, the hearings were inexcusably foolish and a waste of public money.
The House justice committee lined up some eight convicts and assorted police officials as witnesses. And no less than Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre turned up to question and squeeze some juice from the hardboiled resource persons.
At the Senate, it was amusing to watch Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano strain longwindedly to destroy the story of Edgar Matobato, only to find the hitman ramrod firm and more credible than him.
Sen. Dick Gordon looked funny as he tried to invest the proceedings with solemnity, reminding everyone about the rules, and saying repeatedly, “we are all lawyers here.” I saw Sen. Manny Pacquiao smile at this.
It was hilarious to see Gordon threaten to punish Matobato with contempt, when the man was already confessing to having killed 50 people or more in his affidavits. Did his knees quake perhaps at the prospect of a contempt citation?
From continuous watchfulness to legislative review
In his Political Dictionary, William Safire writes that the “oversight function” is relatively new even to the US Congress. It was formally authorized by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which provided: “To assist the Congress in appraising the administration of the laws and developing such amendments or related legislation, as it may deem necessary, each standing committee for the Senate and the House shall exercise continuous watchfulness of the execution by the administrative agencies concerned of any laws.”
Oversight was at first neglected by the US Congress, but by the 1970s, with the CIA revelations of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it became a banner for congressional vigilance on accountability of the executive.
In the US Congress, members take the oversight responsibility seriously. One senator said, “Congress’ duty does not end in passing this law. We have to make sure the law works.” Another senator declared: “I have always felt that one-third of the role of Congress should be in oversight.”
No mandate to investigate
Here in the Philippines, our Constitution provides, in Article VI, section 21, for the optional exercise of the oversight function. The section reads:
“The Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure.”
There is no explicit mandate for Congress to make government accountable to the people. It is only implicit in Congress’ right to make laws, appropriate money, give consent to nominations, and officials.
During the time of President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd, he encouraged the pork-barrel investigations as a tool for crippling the political opposition. He also approved of the crucifixion of former vice president Jejomar Binay by a Senate subcommittee
Another corpse in the drug war
Under President Duterte, congressional oversight is just another corpse in the war on drugs.
If there’s one issue for which the government should be held to account, it is indisputably the drug war and the drug killings. But the 17th Congress does not even want to look.
Sen. Leila de Lima made investigation of the drug war the top priority of her Senate justice committee. She was booted out of the committee chairmanship after she brought an alleged hitman to testify on the Davao death squads.
In the House, De Lima became the principal subject of its justice committee hearing. They were more interested in her alleged drug dealings than in digging for facts in the drug war.
The travesty is so brazen, the House has even decided to ban the term “extrajudicial killings” from its inquiries.
Oversight in the dictionary is also defined as “failure to notice something.”