Thursday, August 9, 2007

An independent and irrelevant Senate

Against all odds, the Senate has shown its independence, brags an aide of Senate President Manny Villar. This is beyond cavil: the Senate has become truly independent ---independent of its own rules and tradition. This we owe to Villar and his peculiar way of doing things. After convening the Senate’s inaugural session on July 23, 2007 without any legal authority to do so, and getting away with it, Villar has now put the most controversial neophytes in charge of the most important committees, and apparently hopes to get away with it too.

How this came about is not easy to swallow.

First of all, the senators slept through the inaugural session when Villar claimed the office of Senate President before he was reelected to the position which he had inherited from Senate President Franklin Drilon in the last part of the 13th Congress until June 30. The illegal assembly, and the falsification of the official record of its proceedings, are now part of Senate history.

Then only a couple of administration senators woke up to question the highly questionable process of filling up the committees. As members of the majority bloc that elected Villar to his post, Senators Joker Arroyo and Richard Gordon tried to question the process, but found no support even among their own coalition colleagues on the floor.

The choice of committee chairs is an exclusive affair of the ruling majority. This is normally discussed among its members in a caucus of the majority. But Villar got rid of that process, too. He apparently discussed the chairmanships with only three or so of his colleagues, and then sprang his choices on the floor as a fait accompli.

Under the Rules of the Senate, no objection against the proposed membership of any particular Senator in any permanent committee shall be considered, whenever such a motion is presented. Objections, however, may be raised against the proposed membership as a whole. And there are other ways of forcing the Chair to defer the matter until after the majority shall have met in caucus.

But not all the members of the majority bloc were in the hall at the time, and neither Arroyo nor Gordon had the sufficient parliamentary skills to derail the process.

Still, the senators cannot just throw in the towel and leave everything at the mercy of their new honcho. They must find the courage to rethink their choice of Senate President before the rest of the nation begins to rethink the value of keeping the Senate.

As a former senator who had the opportunity of serving as chairman of the Committee on Rules and therefore as Senate Majority Leader through five changes in the Senate presidency, I may have spoken more extensively than any sitting senator against the attempt to abolish the Senate in 2006. Today, I do not believe I would have the courage to speak in its defense. I could not even bring myself to attend its opening session last July anymore. The Senate has become a real embarrassment to those who once associated it with honor and dignity.

Giving Alan Peter Cayetano the “blue ribbon” and education committees at the same time speaks volumes about the self-worth of the Senate autocracy. The young senator is bright, articulate and charming, but he is a first termer and has a serious moral flaw.

In the House of Representatives, no first termer gets to chair a committee, even if he happens to be a veteran legislator who had served two full terms as senator. In the Senate, where there are more committees than senators, a first termer who belongs to the majority could end up chairing a committee. But certainly not blue ribbon, education or ways and means, especially if there are senior senators to choose from.

In addition to being a neophyte, Cayetano ran in defiance of the constitutional ban on political dynasties on the strength of the technical argument that no enabling law has been passed to enforce the constitutional prohibition. But with or without an enabling law, the moral principle is clear: this Senate of 24 members represents a nation of close to 90 million Filipinos, or approximately 18 million families.

Any family should be honored to have one of its members sitting there at any time. More than honored if one of its members gets to sit there from one Congress to another. But by what right should any family want to have more than one of its members sitting there at the same time while close to 18 million other families are not represented? And what duty do the people and the Senate have to put up with it?

The fact that Alan Peter was elected by people who either were not aware of or did not give enough importance to this objection does not invalidate the moral principle. On the contrary, the objection acquires greater validity every time we see Alan Peter and his sister Pia sitting together on the floor as senators.

This involves a basic question of justice---of not wanting to claim for oneself more than what is one’s due, or more than what is due others. Obviously Alan Peter takes the opposite view, and we should have no illusion about it. But if one is not prepared to recognize and respect this basic moral principle, under what principle of justice will he operate in the discharge of his simplest duties as senator and as committee chair? What standard of justice will govern his blue ribbon “investigations”? And what moral principles will inform his words and actions when he begins to talk about education? Will everyone be sufficiently assured or distracted every time he quotes Scripture?

The burden of the Senate is not lesser than Alan Peter’s. In awarding the neophyte senator two major committees whose work is grounded on basic moral principles, is not the Senate setting a dangerous and destructive precedent? Is not the Senate consecrating the proposition that it is all right for anyone to run for the Senate in violation of a constitutional ban and a moral principle, and that his election wipes out the violation, even if there was no showing that the people had voted for him in full awareness of the constitutional and moral principles involved?

Obviously the Senate cannot turn out any elected member without due process; but it ought to be able, at the very least, to make certain distinctions about the moral qualities and fitness of its members, and then to farm out committee assignments, guided somehow by those distinctions.
Alan Peter and Pia are charming siblings. No brother and sister team could possibly be more charming. If you throw in Alan’s congresswoman-wife, you would even have a greater charmer. But if Pia Cayetano were to resign today in order to remove this moral cloud above the head of her brother, it could be an occasion of enormous rejoicing. That may not yet qualify Alan Peter for a major committee, but it could help project him as a young man with a real future. It might even help Manny Villar keep his present post, and his presidential ambition for 2010.

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