Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Senate in Disarray

As the 14th Congress opened last Monday, we expected the usually rambunctious and unruly House of Representatives, with its high-profile Speakership fight, to provide the biggest source of public disappointment and embarrassment. The Senate managed to outdo the House on several counts.

First, the numerically superior “Genuine Opposition” failed to resolve within its ranks the question of the Senate presidency. They managed to split up instead, and to reduce the rightful majority into a much diminished minority.

Second, the Rules of the Senate were flagrantly violated when:

1) Senator Manny Villar presided over the session without any legal authority, having ceased to be Senate President on June 30, and not having been reelected yet to that same position when he did;

2) the Secretary of the Senate, who had the legal authority to preside, had been prevailed upon to resign beforehand and not to take part in the inaugural session of the 14th Congress;

3) the Presiding Officer recognized the Majority Floor Leader at a time he did not exist, and Sen. Francis Pangilinan took the floor, despite his having ceased to be Floor Leader on June 30, and before he was returned to the same post;

4) Sen. Gringo Honasan later nominated Pangilinan as Senate Majority Leader, and the Senate elected him as such, without anyone pointing out that no one is ever elected to that position: one is elected Chairman of the Committee on Rules and automatically becomes Majority Floor Leader. And finally,

5) when the Senate elected Emma Lirio Reyes, a former judge and old Secretariat hand, as the new Secretary without first acting on Secretary Oscar Yabes’s resignation, which was never mentioned by the Chair, if it had entered the Senate record at all.

As everyone knows, the Opposition became the majority bloc after seven opposition senators were elected last May, in addition to the six incumbents whose term expires in 2010. They lost one member when Senator Fred Lim ran and won as Mayor of Manila. Another member, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, remains under detention for his alleged role in the 2003 Oakwood mutiny.

But their bloc of eleven members is still bigger than the administration bloc of nine, and might have stood a fair chance of gaining the support of the two “independents,” Pangilinan and Honasan, had they tried hard enough.

But apparently not sure of getting enough support within the opposition coalition, Villar went over to the administration bloc, and with Senators Francis Escudero, Alan Peter Cayetano and Jinggoy Estrada in tow, confected his own coalition with the administration senators.

The result is an administration-dominated coalition, which seriously compromises, among other things, the political integrity of Jinggoy’s position, and that of his father Erap, who is trying to fight off a possible conviction for plunder at the Sandigabayan.

For Villar, the Senate presidency may be all that matters for now. But it raises a not altogether infinitesimal or irrelevant question of political or moral principles that could affect his drive for the presidency in 2010.

The rules of parliamentary procedure form part of what Bagehot has called “the dignified aspects” of the Constitution. Ignorance may occasionally intrude, but there should never be any brazen attempt to step upon the rules, in the mistaken belief that everyone else is too ignorant to mind, and that those who will mind are entirely incapable of doing anything about it.

It is not at all a minor point that the Senate’s inaugural session was opened and presided over by someone who did not have the authority to do so, and that none of those present rose to question it. It is a blot on the record and integrity of the entire Senate.

Manny Villar was Senate President until June 30, 2007. He was elected Senate President again on July 23, 2007. At the opening of the inaugural session, he was just plain Senator Villar. He had no authority to open and preside over the session of the Senate.

Under the Rules of the Senate, whenever there is neither a President nor a President Pro Tempore to open the first session in which the Senators elected in the immediately preceding regular elections shall participate, the Secretary of the Senate shall open and preside. Oscar Yabes had been occupying that position from Senate President Franklin Drilon’s watch, but he was reportedly asked by Villar to resign beforehand, and not to attend the inaugural session anymore. And Yabes did.

But the Secretary is an elective official of the Senate, not a mere appointee of the Senate President. The Senate must accept his resignation before it can take effect. Yabes’s resignation, however, was not even mentioned before his successor was elected. And none of the senators raised a single question about it.

Now, just as Villar was no longer Senate President when he opened the session, Pangilinan was no longer Floor Leader when he took the floor to assume its duties. Honasan nominated him later, and the senators elected him as Floor Leader, without anyone correcting the erroneous usage.

Under the Rules of the Senate, the elective officers of the Chamber are the Senate President, the President Pro Tempore, the Secretary and the Sergeant at Arms. The Majority Leader is not part of the enumeration. The Senate elects a chairman of the Committee on Rules, and he or she automatically becomes the Majority Floor Leader.

He or she is normally elected with the other committee chairmen and members, a day after the ceremonial session. None of them take an oath before the Senate President. Sen. Loren Legarda was the first one, I believe, to take her oath before the Senate President as Floor Leader; Pangilinan is obviously the second.

Now, even the opening prayer delivered by a member of the Senate is subjected to interpellation, and the Chair is unable to rule it out of order. The bigger absurdity, of course, is that the minority that used to be the majority now wants to have a say in the distribution of committee chairmanships. Unless the majority decides to accommodate the minority, that is solely the prerogative of the majority; the role of the minority is to sit in every committee as mere members.

Of course the biggest absurdity is that a senator who had won as a candidate of the Opposition is now Senate President by virtue of an administration-controlled coalition, while the Minority Floor Leader is also a member of the Opposition. This is nothing we have learned from anyone; perhaps it’s something we should export.

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