Saturday, September 13, 2008

What’s ailing the Senate?

It is sad to read about the Senate reeling under the charge that one member had managed to insert P400-million in the 2008 and 2009 budgets for a “road to nowhere”, and how this charge has apparently divided the Chamber.

Not many would be amazed if something like this happened in the House of Representatives or in some provincial or city council.. But somehow people seem to have higher expectations of their senators.

I am hoping the ultimate facts are not as bad as the story first appears, and that the whole thing could be sorted out and satisfactorily explained. Senate President Manny Villar seems confident the public would be reassured once the whole truth is known.

I would like to give the Senate leadership the benefit of the doubt.

However, I have some misgivings about the Senate on another issue --- how its members comply with their own Rules. I happen to believe that a deliberative assembly rises or falls on the basis of how its members follow its Rules. This usually determines how best they respond to the issues.

No member of Congress should treat the Rules cavalierly. It is a grave disorder when those in charge do not seem to notice when the Rules are violated, or when they violate them themselves. The dignity of the proceedings and of the institution itself is the first that suffers.

It was my concern as a student of parliamentary politics and a chairman of the Senate rules committee and Senate Majority Leader for many years that prompted me last July 28 to write the Senate a letter asking to be clarified on two not so small issues.

First, Section 13 of the Rules of the Senate provides that no bill or resolution shall be referred to more than two committees, except when it has an appropriations aspect, in which case it is referred also to the Finance committee or when it has a tax aspect, in which case it is referred also to Ways and Means.

In recent months many measures had been referred to more than three committees, in violation of this Rule.

Second, committee hearings were being held with only two senators present, regardless of the size of the committee. This was a clear violation of Rule 22 which says, “one-third of all regular members of the committee shall constitute a quorum, but in no case shall it be less than two.”

The last part of that Rule simply means that when a committee is so small that one third of its regular membership is fewer than two, the number should be rounded off to two. For all other committees, one-third of all the members should constitute a quorum. The committees were all apparently misreading this Rule.

Failing to get a reply, I wrote a second letter on September 1 to restate my query and to remind the Senate leadership that under Section 5 (a) of Republic Act 6713, otherwise known as Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, they were required to answer my letter “within fifteen working days from receipt thereof.”

Since they had failed to do so, the law has then been violated. And violation of the law carries a penalty of a fine not exceeding the equivalent of six months’ salary or suspension from office not exceeding one year or outright removal, depending on the gravity of the offense.

I was not interested in prosecuting but I wanted a ruling on the issues. The question of quorum had become suddenly more urgent after I had on August 11 attended a joint hearing of six committees of questionable validity. The six committees had a combined membership of 78, but only three were present in lieu of 26, when the hearing began. The primary committee alone needed at least four to constitute a quorum.

My worry is that if the primary committee decides to support passage of the bill in which I had intervened on the basis of the joint hearings held without a quorum I may have to question it in court. . I would like to avoid that, so I am hoping the Senate will act properly.

My query is not at all easy. The correct ruling will have to declare all big committee hearings with only two senators present null and void. But what would happen if the Supreme Court ruled on the issue? The same thing, except that the embarrassment would have been completely unnecessary.

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