CONGRESSIONAL oversight over the executive agencies and departments is invariably the defense of lawmakers against public and media criticism of their penchant for conducting hearings and inquiries on live TV.
Generally, congressional inquiries are a good way for keeping the executive agencies and departments under check and in balance. But as we also know, an inquisition, if made a regular feature of government, is not a healthy state of affairs. A government that suspects every member of the service will not be productive or stable.
We have to place this entire thing in perspective and under check.
Congress’ willingness and eagerness to conduct regular and meaningful oversight stems from several factors: the public’s dissatisfaction with government; revelations of executive agency abuses; influx of new legislators whose aim is to make government perform more effectively; concern that some regulatory agencies are tied too closely to industries they regulate; and the recognition by Congress that they must make every peso in the national budget count.
The competition between the administration and the opposition encourages vigorous congressional oversight.
Oversight simultaneously enables the majority and the opposition to supervise agency activities and look for ways to advance the administration’s policy goals or undermine them.
The standard rationale for oversight is that it ensures that laws are carried out according to congressional intent.
Hearings may provide dramatic episodes, the appropriations process is usually hemmed in by programmatic needs for financial stability, and statutes are often blunt instruments for control.
But then there is also the tendency to stretch Congress’ investigative authority too far, like in issuing a deluge of subpoenas and detaining uncooperative witnesses in Congress.
We recall these ground rules for oversight as we assess the ongoing inquiry of the Senate blue ribbon committee and the Senate justice and human rights committee.
At first, a few weeks back, the inquiry appeared to be about the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) scandal and some prominent jailbirds.
But then, when we looked again, we discovered that the inquiry had mutated into an investigation of the “ninja cops case,” concerning the recycling of confiscated illegal drugs, which occurred and was investigated six years ago.
And most recently it seemed to become an investigation of the director general of the Philippine National Police, Gen. Oscar Albayalde.
We are concerned that the Senate may be stretching its oversight power too far.
In this regard, we want to remind our honorable senators about a ruling rendered sometime ago by as US chief justice, Earl Warren, concerning the investigative authority of Congress. He wrote in Watkins v. United States (1957):
“There is no general authority to expose private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of Congress…Nor is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency. These are functions of the executive and judicial departments of government.
“No inquiry is an end in itself; it must be related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress.”
The current conduct of the Senate hearings skirt the limits of this guideline.
Our own Constitution also provides a useful guideline in Article VI, Sec. 21: “The Senate or the House or any of its respective committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of persons appearing in or affected by such inquiries shall be respected.”
In our coverage of Congress and our public affairs for so many decades, we believe it is important for Congress and the public to always be on guard against untoward developments that would distort the oversight powers of Congress.
We definitely do not want a repeat of the excesses of recent past Congresses, wherein one top public official was shamed so publicly that his only recourse was to take his own life.
Filipinos have a penchant for vowing “never again.”
On this one, we say never again should we allow a congressional inquiry to be abused and brought this low.