Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Do we need the Senate ‘Blue Ribbon’ Committee?

So much is wrong about the ongoing debate on who should chair the Senate Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations, otherwise known as the “Blue Ribbon” committee.

The naming of Senate committee chairs is the sole prerogative of the majority. It may be debated internally within the majority, but never between the majority and the minority. The ongoing debate betrays a lack of understanding of the basic rules, and of the precise mandate of the committee.

In any Congress or Parliament, the majority controls the committees. The minority members are entitled to sit as members, but not to chair any. This practice was broken during the Senate presidency of Jovito Salonga when the majority allowed some minority members to chair some committees. This has been imitated since, but it has not created a norm which confers upon the minority the right to chair any committee.

It is, therefore, absurd for anyone to say the minority has the right. And it is even more absurd for someone like Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan, if the reports are correct, to say that an opposition senator should chair the highly coveted committee.

We cannot, however, blame the opposition for feeling the way they do. For the last election gave them a clear Senate majority. Whether the count was 13 senators (with Fred Lim, who is now mayor of Manila, and Antonio Trillanes IV, who is still in jail) or 11 (without the two), the opposition had the majority, vis-à-vis the Administration’s nine senators, and two Independents.

That majority had the right and the duty to choose from among themselves their nominee for the Senate Presidency. It was also the duty of the opposition senators aspiring for the office to submit to the decision of that majority. The vote need not be unanimous, but whoever had the bigger vote among the opposition aspirants should have been the nominee.

Sen. Manny Villar, however, was operating on a different principle. After having won his reelection as an opposition candidate, he wrenched himself away from the opposition majority. With three other opposition senators in tow, he went over to the administration bloc to form a new majority, thereby reducing the opposition majority into a minority. Sadly, this effort was supported by the young and promising Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, whose incarcerated ex-President-father personifies the opposition’s prolonged agony under the regime of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Former President Estrada and his senator-son have since tried to assuage the wounded feelings of their disappointed supporters by saying they would withdraw their support once they see Villar collaborate with Mrs. Arroyo. This is painful and pathetic sophistry. Villar’s new coalition is administration-controlled; it has nine administration senators, two pro-Malacanang Independents, and four apparently confused “opposition” senators.

No further proof of collaboration is needed. In fact, this is the most crudely disguised capitulation, if there was one. The Senate does not have a legislative agenda of its own; Mrs. Arroyo’s agenda, not Villar’s, even if he had any, will prevail.

This naturally disappoints many. But it should not. Abyssus abyssum invocat ---one depravity leads to another. The last senatorial election was fought without any principles; we cannot possibly expect those who had won in that election to suddenly become the soul of righteous honor and virtue.

These senators did not mind that three political parties were running two sets of senatorial candidates on the two opposition tickets in the last election. They did not mind that some of them were running while their father or sister was still sitting in the Senate until 2010. They did not mind that they or other candidates were spending hundreds of millions of pesos to land a job that paid less than a million pesos a year. Why then should they be expected to become so honorably principled after the elections?

This much is clear. The once honorable and proud business of the Senate is now a “dog eat dog” affair. The opposition has been completely outplayed in that sordid game, so it must now swallow everything being fed its members. They can only be members, not chairmen, of committees, notably the so-called Blue Ribbon committee.

Thus, if the majority decides to retain Sen. Joker Arroyo as chair, this will not be for the minority to question. The Rules of the Senate are clear: “Whenever a motion regarding who should be a member of a permanent committee is presented, no objection against the proposed membership of any Senator in particular shall be considered. The objections, if any, must be formulated against the proposed membership therein as a whole.”

But why does the so-called Blue Ribbon committee excite a lot of senators? Its high-profile investigations, which many times border on the questionable, by no means explain it all. Some of the reasons may not all be agreeable. While the Constitution empowers the two Houses of Congress and their committees to conduct “inquiries in aid of legislation,” this committee “investigates”, often to create sensational headlines, which in turn create fortunes for some, and misfortunes for others.

And despite the vigor expressed by members of this committee during investigations, no bigtime grafters have been convicted, or even prosecuted in court, because of such investigations. The findings of this committee are not binding upon the Ombudsman; they are routinely set aside or made to sleep the sleep of death in the Archives, after a sensational investigation.

This was probably the reason why then Senate President Neptali Gonzales once suggested its abolition, except that Senator Ernesto Maceda argued with fervor that it would deprive the Senate of its strongest source of power against the Executive Department. Indeed, under certain chairmen, the committee has become the most dreaded venue for “exposing” or threatening “to expose” the corruption of others, often for the material advantage of the “exposer.” The use of the term “Blue Ribbon” has long become questionable.

The term “blue ribbon” originally applied to a jury or committee chosen on the basis of intelligence or special experience to investigate particularly complex or important matters. The term comes from the ribbons worn by members of the
Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III around 1348, and the cordon bleu of the ancient order of St. Esprit in France. The choice of the garter as a symbol is the subject of legend about the king picking up a garter which a lady of the court had dropped, and telling those who were amused by the incident, “honi soit qui mal y pense---shame to him who thinks evil of it.” The color of the garter is dark blue velvet with gold trimmings. It is also associated with prize-winners in competitions, both human and animal.

Nothing about the present committee seems to relate to any noble tradition.
There may, therefore, be no valid justification for retaining the term. “Blue Ribbon” committee. In fact, there may be no reason for keeping the committee at all. If the intention is merely to conduct “inquiries in aid of legislation,” as mandated by the Constitution, there is nothing under the jurisdiction of this committee that cannot be farmed out to the other committees for appropriate action.

An inquiry into the misuse of agricultural funds, which I had originally exposed prior to the 2004 elections, but which the Senate decided to investigate only in 2006, could be undertaken by the committee on finance or the committee on agriculture. An anomaly in the use of defense funds could be inquired into by the committee on finance or the committee on national defense. And so on and so forth.

The question before the senators, therefore, is not who should chair the so-called Blue Ribbon Committee, but whether the committee should continue to exist, or should now be gracefully retired.

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