Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Senate without Trillanes

I did not have the wisdom to vote for Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV in the last election, but I am not happy that the Makati Regional Trial Court has ruled he may not attend the sessions of the Senate. I would have wanted to see how he would make good his promise to make life unbearable for the Arroyo administration –something the entire Senate opposition has so far failed to arrange.

The court’s ruling completely ignored a non-binding resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that Trillanes be permitted to leave his detention cell, as an accused mutineer, in order to attend the sessions. The court could have granted Trillanes’s petition on the reasonable presumption that his election to the Senate has reduced, if not completely eliminated, the risk of flight from the court’s jurisdiction. But it decided to assert the principle of separation of powers.

This is a disappointment to those who had voted for Trillanes in the mistaken belief that if elected, he would be free to function as a senator. But it provides the political parties and the nation a lesson they should never forget. No responsible political party or group of parties ever runs a national candidate who may not even be able to sit, even if elected, because of a serious political or legal problem. No responsible voter assumes that by voting for such a candidate he would be freeing him from his problem.

The Trillanes case may not be likened to the case of Ninoy Aquino who ran for the interim Batasang Pambansa from his detention cell in 1978. It is not even in the same class as that of his current or former idol Sen. Gringo Honasan who also ran while still under detention for having allegedly masterminded the 2003 Oakwood mutiny, where Trilllanes had such a highly publicized role.

Ninoy Aquino was already a pillar of the opposition when in 1972 then President Marcos declared martial law and jailed many opposition leaders. His running for the Batasan was not merely the solitary act of one jailed politician; it represented the collective will of the entire opposition. They wanted to show Marcos that the opposition was alive and well, ready to confront him in any political contest, even from inside a detention cell.

Honasan, for his part, had been senator at least a couple of times before. He does not have Ninoy’s record, nor did he have the support of the “Genuine Opposition.” He ran as an “Independent” after GO had refused to consider him. But he ran to win, not just to make a political statement. Such was his luck and charm that he had his court case dropped and he won a new term without having to break any bones.

Trillanes’s case is different. He was a Navy lieutenant senior grade detained for his alleged role in the Oakwood affair. He did not belong to the political opposition, although many of its members would probably have joined the parade if Oakwood had led to a regime change. He did not expect to win, and nobody else did. But his victory was the most solid protest vote against the Arroyo administration. It also exposed the long continuing con game of the propaganda pollsters.

Some senators have wondered why while Honasan has been cleared of the charge of masterminding Oakwood, Trillanes, who merely tried to look telegenic, remains in military custody, deprived of his rights as a new senator. This is unfair to Honasan and to our “justice system.”

The case against Gringo was dropped because, according to the Secretary of Justice, the evidence against him was not strong. Had any of his co-accused declared that Honasan was indeed their mastermind, the case might have taken a different turn. But none of them ever made that claim.

Now that the court has spoken, one small housekeeping question remains. Does Sen. Trillanes get to collect the salary and other emoluments of a senator? Does he get to hire a staff? Does he get to be nominated to any committee at all? If he does, what happens to the principle that one must put in actual work for one’s wages? If he does not, what happens to the principle that no elective official may be deprived of the compensation due his office?

With Trillanes on forced leave, and Fred Lim becoming mayor of Manila, the Senate of 24 members has been effectively reduced to only 22 members. We don’t have the time or space for all its implications, but we can talk for now about the Senate representation in the Commission on Appointments (CA).

One newspaper reports that Malacanang has directed its Senate allies to make sure the Senate opposition does not dominate the CA. If that account is correct, it is certainly harebrained. The CA is a constitutional body consisting of the Senate President as ex-officio Chairman, twelve Senators and twelve Members of the House of Representatives, elected by each House on the basis of proportional representation from the political parties and parties or organizations registered under the party-list system.

Every two senators belonging to the same party are entitled to one seat in the CA, usually on a term-sharing arrangement. With only 22 actively sitting senators, the Senate can only nominate 11, rather than 12 CA members. How to redo the arithmetic in order to produce 12 CA members from only 22 voting senators is the real problem. Can senators who cannot seem to follow the most fundamental rules of parliamentary procedure arrive at the correct solution to this problem?

Regardless of the present mixup that has arisen from post-election maneuvers related to the Senate presidency, nine senators belong to the administration, 11 to the opposition, and two are “independent.” Under the existing formula, the 11 opposition senators are entitled to five and a half (5.5) seats; the nine administration senators, to four and a half (4.5) seats; the two “independents,” to one seat. Since there are no one-half seats, the practice is for two one-half seats to combine in order to form one seat under a term-sharing agreement.

It is, therefore, unavoidable that one administration senator and one opposition senator will have to combine to take one seat, under a term-sharing arrangement. If the opposition senator takes the first half of the term, this would mean its having a total of six seats, as against four seats for the administration. If the administration takes the first crack, it would have five seats, as against five seats for the opposition. If the lone “independent” member aligns with the administration, the latter would effectively have six seats. The total would still be 11, rather than 12 members.

But the more important point is this. In the CA, one member alone can derail action on any presidential nomination simply by invoking a section of the Rules which compels the Body to call off any voting until the last session prior to the adjournment of Congress. So, while numbers always count, the real key to a good batting record in the CA is the quality of presidential nominations.

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