Friday, 5 February 2010

Hostaged by senators

Marvin A. Tort
Business Mirror

I used to have higher regard for the Senate than the House of Representatives, primarily for two reasons: the quality of the chamber membership, with my perception that senators are more competent legislators than congressmen; and the Senate’s focus on national interests as opposed to the House’s preoccupation with local and even parochial issues.

But last Wednesday’s Senate session indicated to me that perhaps the Senate has already outlived its usefulness and that maybe the new administration, with a new Congress, should finally take time to review the Constitution. I have become more convinced that now is the time to amend the Charter and pave the way for the creation of a unicameral legislature.

Imagine having national interest held hostage by a group of senators as they opted to wittingly absent themselves from session and thus prevent a quorum. And obviously, without a quorum, the Senate could not go about its business. As such, the session was adjourned shortly after opening, with a number of important issues left hanging, including allegation of unethical behavior by a senator now running for president.

As voters contemplate a new set of legislators this coming May, perhaps the Wednesday episode should remain fresh on their minds as they also contemplate whether to abolish the Senate and opt to go unicameral. After all, one cannot help but feel shortchanged by some of the senators voted into office six and three years ago.

Without a Senate, people would not have wasted their votes in electing to the Senate a jailed mutineer who was never allowed to hold office. Over 11 million people who voted Antonio Trillanes into office in 2007 as the No. 11 senator never got anything for their vote, not a thing. In a unicameral setup, given the same circumstances, only a local district would have been deprived of representation, but not a national constituency—perhaps 50,000 voters, but not 11 million.

In a unicameral setup, legislative work cannot be held hostage by lack of quorum if 11 or 12 lawmakers wittingly absent themselves from the session. In a unicameral legislature composed of over 300 parliamentarians, it is highly unlikely for the majority to bum around and skip work all at the same time. The likelihood of a stunt like the one at the Senate last Wednesday is higher in a chamber of only 22 (with Trillanes in jail and Lacson out of the country) than in a chamber of over 300.

And while a unicameral legislature may be unwieldy because of the sheer number of delegates debating an issue, it can also perhaps hasten the legislative process because there will no longer be a need for counterpart legislation from another chamber, and there will not be a need for a bicameral conference committee to reconcile differences between two versions of a similar or consolidated bill.

Also, experience shows us that the check-and-balance structure supposedly promoted by a bicameral legislature does not necessarily work efficiently in the Philippine setting. Ultimately, check and balance here relies more on the quality of legislators elected into office rather than the system and structure of the institution they are elected into. Even the best structure will fail without appropriate electoral reform. In electing lawmakers, the prevailing impression is garbage in, garbage out.

It is disgusting how some senators can seemingly spurn, even temporarily, their sworn oath to serve the public and to uphold the Constitution. I cannot imagine how their boycott of last Wednesday’s session had actually served public or national interest, even assuming there were no important bills to tackle at the session. If at all, their absence seems to benefit only one of their colleagues, but definitely not the voting public.

And even assuming that some senators were absent only as a protest to push a matter of principle, as elected senators of the Republic they do not enjoy the luxury of advocating a personal political agenda at the expense of national interest. Has it not been said that one’s loyalty to his or her party (or ally) should end where his or her loyalty to the country begins?

And for the sake of argument, even assuming that the C-5 controversy under investigation is motivated more by politics rather than the pursuit of truth and justice, senators do not enjoy the option of publicly bucking the system and the processes they themselves have instituted and have sworn to uphold. Why did they even bother to get elected to the Senate if they did not intend to be governed by its rules?

Invariably, how can the Senate expect people to willingly submit themselves to its processes if senators themselves question the same processes and refuse to abide by them? Should there be a set of rules only for senators and another set of rules for all others? If this should be the case, then perhaps it is truly time to abolish the Senate. God save the Republic.

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