The legislature—and the country for that matter—will be poorer with the “graduation” of Sen. Joker Arroyo after 21 years as lawmaker. I was privileged to cover him at the House from 1992 to 1998 and at the Senate since 2001, and witnessed the high quality of his service to the nation. I consider him one of the best legislators I had ever covered.
One of the things that I noted about Joker was his frequent lambasting of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinsd. He told me that when he was executive secretary of then President Cory (before his election in 1992 as congressman representing Makati), he advised her to seek a partial or even total condonation of the Philippines’ foreign debt in her state visit to the United States. She was at the height of her worldwide popularity then and Joker wanted her to use this to ease the country’s huge debt burden.
Joker said that while President Cory toyed with this idea, she later followed the advice of the Central Bank that a debt is a debt and must be paid.
“From that day on, the Central Bank became my enemy,” he said.
Since Cory’s time, debt service has remained the biggest single component of the national budget, hobbling our development. We could only speculate on how progressive the Philippines would have been today had President Cory heeded Joker’s call on foreign debt. There’s no speculation, however, on the outstanding performance of Joker as member of Congress.
He gave a standout performance as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee in the 13th Congress. Joker used the power to investigate most responsibly and with deliberate speed, knowing that its misuse could blacken reputation and kill a promising future. He never left any probe hanging. All were concluded with committee reports, all of which were approved in plenary by the Senate.
He acted with urgency when President Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017 that called for warrantless arrests and the curtailment of press freedom. He was also among the most vocal critics of Executive Order 464 issued by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo prohibiting executive officials from appearing before Congress without her approval. When the Senate decided to question this EO before the Supreme Court, it chose Joker as its representative in virtual tribute to his legal and oratory prowess.
The then Sen. Benigno Simeon Aquino 3rd wasn’t impressed by the legal credentials of Joker and paid dearly for it. Joker held nothing back in debating with Aquino who was sponsoring a bill converting Malolos, Bulacan into a congressional district. He might have expressed himself too strongly for he had exposed Aquino as somebody who bit off more than he could chew. Since that day, the sensitive Aquino had forgotten the 40-year friendship between Joker and the Aquinos.
The former human rights lawyer was among the authors of Republic Act 9346 that bans the imposition of death penalty. He said that the enactment of this bill was among those that have given him the greatest satisfaction as a legislator But more than in filing bills, Joker had distinguished himself in committee hearings and plenary debates.
Most of the senators attend only televised hearings on controversial issues. This is not so with Joker. I regularly saw him presiding over or attending hearings with very few senators present, on bills that he considered vital to the country. His searching questions to resource persons in hearings often elicit information that generally result in the improvement of a measure.
His debates with Senators Edgardo Angara, Juan Ponce Enrile and Aquilino Pimentel were highly educational, punctuated with wit and wisdom. These debates showcased his mastery of words and depth of knowledge, made more emphatic by his hand gestures, body language and dramatic pauses.
He showed his gallantry and flair for fair play on Sept. 18, 2009 when minority senators boycotted the session after the previous plenary had voted to allow Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano to speak ahead of minority Sen. Jamby Madrigal on personal and collective privilege. Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago proposed that the majority approve all pending priority measures since the minority senators willingly absented themselves. Joker moved for immediate adjournment instead, saying he considered the presence of the minority mandatory in floor deliberations.
Joker’s productive stint in the legislature was made more remarkable by his penny-pinching ways. He had consistently accrued the least public expense among senators, aside from waiving his annual pork barrel in the entire 21 years of his life in Congress.
Joker, now 86, deserves the thanks and appreciation of a grateful nation for giving his all in his stint as a legislator. We’ll be waiting eagerly, impatiently, for the appearance of another lawmaker like him