Thursday, October 11, 2007

How long before all hell breaks loose?

We are at the lowest point of our political life as a nation.

Fearing the worst fallout from the $329-million NBN-ZTE broadband scandal -- where she confirms having been told of then-Commission on Election chair Benjamin Abalos’s offer of a P200-million bribe to then NEDA chief Romulo Neri to facilitate the project, but did nothing to prosecute or punish Abalos -- President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has compelled the House of Representatives to receive a bogus impeachment complaint which is intended to prevent the filing of an honest-to-goodness impeachment complaint against her for at least one year.

Amid reports that the congressman who had endorsed the questionable complaint had been paid to do so, and that other congressmen were being offered P2 million each to do the same, Speaker Jose de Venecia had decided to freeze the transmittal of the complaint to the House Committee on Justice. But when Mrs. Arroyo threatened a showdown with De Venecia, whose son had blown the whistle on the bribe offers and kickbacks after losing his bid for the fat contract, the Speaker backed down, and allowed Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar of Cebu to transmit the complaint. One morning newspaper claimed this came after 190 congressmen met with Mrs. Arroyo and received P500,000 each in cash and P70 million in “pork” in exchange for their support.

The Committee on Justice is now expected to throw out the complaint for being insufficient either in form or in substance. Thereafter, no impeachment complaint may be filed against Mrs. Arroyo for at least one year, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling on the law on impeachment.

Under the Constitution, the House shall have the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment. And the Senate, the sole power to try and decide all cases of impeachment. As written in the law, the House initiates a case of impeachment when -- and only when --- it sends to the Senate the Articles of Impeachment against an impeached official. Unless and until that happens, there is no impeachment case and no impeachment proceedings initiated exclusively by the House. There is a nonbiodegradable legal distinction between a complaint filed by one or several complainants, and a case initiated exclusively by the House.

The language of the Constitution is clear. You don’t need a lawyer or a Supreme Court justice to interpret it. But in 2003, then Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr., who now serves illegally as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, in violation of the Foreign Service Act, and without having been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, faced certain impeachment for his alleged misuse of the Judicial Development Fund. In order to save him, his colleagues ruled in Francisco vs. House of Representatives, 415 SCRA 44, that since a previous complaint against him had failed to prosper, he could no longer be subjected to an impeachment complaint that same year. That ruling saved Davide, but it completely destroyed and made a mockery of the law on impeachment.

The original sin, therefore, lies not with lawyer Oliver Lozano, who filed the first two ludicrous impeachment complaints against Mrs. Arroyo, or with Roel Pulido, who filed the present complaint. Nor with the first congressman who was reportedly paid to endorse Pulido’s complaint. Nor with the 190 others who were reportedly “fixed” to junk it. It lies with the honorable justices of the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court is trying very hard to look good these days by taking initiatives that properly belong to the Executive, it has constitutionalized patently unconstitutional acts of the Arroyo administration, and allowed Mrs. Arroyo and her minions to make a mockery of the law on impeachment, prohibit Cabinet members from appearing before Congress without the President’s prior consent, and require those who appear there to deny Congress rightful access to executive information and data by invoking “executive privilege.” These court decisions have made Mrs. Arroyo a law unto herself.

Under the Constitution, a Cabinet member needs the President’s consent only when he volunteers to appear before Congress, not when he is summoned by its Members. But Executive Order 464 requires the President’s consent for all Cabinet appearances, and the Supreme Court has validated this unauthorized and invalid revision of the Constitution. The Court has also legitimated “executive privilege” to deprive Congress of its rightful access to necessary information from the Executive.

The term “executive privilege” does not appear in the Constitution at all. What the Constitution says is that whenever a Cabinet member appears on his own initiative before Congress, or upon invitation by its members, when “the security of the state or the public interest so requires, and the President so states in writing, the appearance shall be conducted in executive session.” This means the public may not share any state secrets, but the Constitution never contemplated withholding any secrets from Congress, which alone has the power to levy taxes, appropriate public funds, and declare the existence of a state of war --- vital powers denied to the President.

In the Senate hearing on the NBN-ZTE deal, Neri invoked “executive privilege” to avoid giving further information, after saying that he had informed Mrs. Arroyo of Abalos’s P200 -million bribe offer to him in exchange for his approval of the project---a detail which Mrs. Arroyo later confirmed. Neri would probably not have done so, had the senators only asked him the right questions. But instead of asking him specific questions about his talk with Mrs. Arroyo, they chose to ask him an inept blanket question----“what else did you talk about?” You ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

The senators then decided to go into executive session. But once they were closeted inside, Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya, Jr. walked in and presented himself as Neri’s counsel. Neri was entitled to a counsel of his choice, but Andaya is a Cabinet member, prohibited by the Constitution from practicing his legal profession. He was a “stranger” there, but the senators could not even evict him from their meeting.

Since then, the new NEDA head has also invoked “executive privilege” to hold on to minutes of the NEDA meetings on the NBN-ZTE project, which are not even secret documents. Some senators have threatened to hold him in contempt, but the senators have not lately been able to enforce their own rights, nor follow their own Rules.

We may we witnessing the final stages of a systemic meltdown. The three branches of government have broken down; no single department enjoys any advantage over the others anymore. Thanks to the generals, big business and media cronies, her total control of the budget and the treasury, Mrs. Arroyo continues to rule despite rapidly diminishing popular support, and many in Congress and in the Judiciary are happy to act as her accomplices. The great majority of our people are pissed off, but unprepared to confront the awesome power that flows from the barrel of the gun of the generals. But we might still see the day when the same people, and the decent and patriotic forces ordained by the Constitution to be their protector and that of the state would finally rediscover their capacity for collective indignation and outrage, and once and for all seize the day.

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