Sunday, August 5, 2007

Villar agonistes

If Senate President Manny Villar looks in agony these days, it could only be because of what’s happening and what’s not happening in the Senate. There are at least two issues that could account for his present torment.

First of all, the Senate opened its regular session by violating all the rules of parliamentary procedure. The inaugural session amounted to an illegal assembly, for having been opened by Senator Villar without any legal authority to do so. The Body effectively legalized what was illegal when nobody, not even the minority, questioned it. Still, the Senate Journal consecrated the violation by saying Senate President Villar opened it when there was no Senate President Villar to open it.

The future researcher who reads the Journal of July 23, 2007, without having read my blog on it, will normally assume that the Senate session was opened by Senate President Manny Villar in the normal exercise of his duties. He will not know that Villar’s position as Senate President of the 13th Congress had already ended, and that he had not yet been reelected to the same position in the 14th Congress when he opened it.

This is not a minor blow to the Senate, or to the Journal of the Senate, or even to the self-indulgent press, which reports all sorts of inanities but unanimously suppressed all mention of it. Since then one morning paper has devoted some space to some heckling by Sen. Joker Arroyo, master heckler of the house, against Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada when he temporarily presided over the session the other day. But neither the joker nor his customary chronicler had said anything about the atrocities inflicted upon the Rules on the opening day of the 14th Congress.

Congress is a rules-based assembly. Its Rules, not its perks, are its most important property. Every apparently minor violation of these Rules is a major offense, especially if it affects the integrity of the proceedings.

For instance, the mere act of the Presiding Officer suspending the session motu proprio (on his own) because he had to go to the bathroom or answer an urgent telephone call is in violation of the Rules, which may not be taken lightly. The session may not be suspended even for a minute without a motion from the Floor. But if the Presiding Officer is permitted to suspend the session on his own whenever he wanted to pee, the Body will have become powerless to stop him if and when he suspends the session because he wanted to pee on the Chamber itself.

This was what happened in that rowdy session of the House of Representatives on Nov. 13, 2000 when the Committee on Justice decided to recommend the impeachment of then President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

Villar, who was then the Speaker, did not want to risk a floor debate. After he banged the gavel to open the session, he read the committee report into the record, ordered the Secretary-General to dispatch the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate, amid demands of order from the floor.

Then he unilaterally suspended the session without a motion from the Floor, in violation of the Rules. All hell broke loose; the congressmen fought for the physical possession of the Mace; but nothing more could be done. One apparently small violation of the Rules ---a unilateral suspension of the session, which the Speaker habitually did whenever he wanted to pee --- did it.

In the Senate inaugural session, the first act of the illegal presiding officer was to suspend the session without a motion from the floor, after the anthem and another song had been sung by the Las Pinas Boys Choir. Nothing more happened. But unless such malpractice is checked, something as bad as the House session of Nov. 13, 2000 could occur one day, and the senators, even if awake, would be unable to stop it.

The second issue has to do with the unresolved conflicts involving the Senate committee chairmanships. These will not be easy to resolve, especially if some senators have begun to see the rapidly receding public support for their totally unprincipled and opportunistic politics. On the contrary, the situation could get worse. The possibility of an unexpected revamp cannot be totally discounted. The political equation could change overnight.

The apparently critical issue is the chairmanship of the so-called Blue Ribbon Committee, which Joker chaired in the last Congress, and which the original opposition majority, which Villar’s new coalition had since reduced into a new minority, now wants to control. Jinggoy has threatened to resign as President Pro Tempore if an administration senator ended chairing the committee.

This is surprising to many. This seems to suggest that Jinggoy did not expect the administration to control the coalition that is made up of nine administration senators, two pro-administration independents, and only four publicly compromised oppositionists.

The only nominally opposition senators who could aspire to chair “Blue Ribbon” are Senators Francis Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano. But although the Senate has more committees than senators, “Blue Ribbon” is seen as too major a committee to give to a neophyte. Of course, the billionaire Manny Villar was a first termer when he first became Senate President, so nothing prevents the senators from rising above seniority, tradition, or common sense. But none of the others have appeared on Forbes magazines’ billionaires’ list, and the administration will still have to agree to such arrangement, in any case.

Some may want to reconstitute the Senate majority with or without Villar as head. This has interesting possibilities. The administration has nine senators, plus two supportive independents, or a total of eleven. The opposition has eleven also, assuming Villar’s group of four will go back to the fold. To elect a new President, they would still need a simple majority of 13 votes (computed on the basis of 24 senators, not 22). Either side will need to win over two “winnables”---this is one time you could correctly use this long bastardized word --- from the other side.

One thing that should never happen but could, should someone ever want to try it, is for the Senate to declare all its elective positions vacant and then fail to elect a new set of officers. The positions of Senate President, President Pro Tempore, Secretary, and Sergeant at Arms would have been vacated, but with the Chairman of Rules (and in virtue thereof, Majority Leader) and all other elected committee chairs, if any, intact. But with neither side able to win over two “winnables” from outside, the Senate Majority Leader becomes the Acting Senate President, under the Rules.

If that happens, Senator Kiko Pangilinan would have earned the grand prize of his life simply for routinely flubbing the Rules of the Senate.

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