Senate under Duterte: Fading independence?

Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 24 2017 12:14 PM

The home of the Philippine Senate at the GSIS Buidling in Pasay City. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News


Since its establishment in 1916, the Senate as an institution has been known for its intelligent debates, history-making decisions, and independence from the executive branch. 

A look back at the first year in office of the Senate under the 17th Congress shows that it has had its share of shake-ups and dramas, and some of these have cast doubt on whether the Senate is doing a good job under a political system of checks and balances. 

The most important shake-up in the past year was the kicking out of Liberal Party (LP) senators from the super-majority coalition and stripping them of their committee chairmanships, and the arrest and detention of opposition Senator Leila de Lima (LP), a high-profile critic of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

De Lima insists the drug charges against her are trumped up, and that her ouster from the Senate justice committee as well as her detention are the result of her criticisms of President Duterte. 

As head of the Senate justice committee, she had allowed the testimony of self-confessed hitman Edgar Matobato against President Rodrigo Duterte and the so-called Davao Death Squad. 

'NATIONAL INTEREST FIRST' 

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III in a meeting with President Duterte and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez at the Rizal Hall in Malacañan Palace. Toto Lozano, Malcanang Photo

In addition to these, the positions taken by the Senate on some issues over the past year have been a disappointment for some. 

Former Senators Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. and Rene Saguisag, for instance, couldn’t hide their concern over how the Senate has appeared weak amid pressing issues on extra-judicial killings and martial law. 

"Yan ang malungkot, etong mga political butterflies, yun e ang kapakanang pansarili, hindi kapakanang pambayan. We have to mature politically, hindi ko nakikita today yan,” Saguisag said.

“Kasi importante sa checks and balance na some will continue like what I try to do, to keep raising the foolish question for the day. Hindi lang yung chuwari-wari. Meaning, some will have to ask, kailangan pa bang ma-extend ang martial law o, and then, there are not enough voices in the Senate, which traditionally has been leading the opposition,” Saguisag, a noted human rights lawyer, added.

Pimentel, father and namesake of incumbent Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, said that while it is natural for the Senate to have members allied with a sitting President, the alliance should only come second to the interest of the nation.

"Tingin ko, sumusuporta sila sa kilos ng Pangulo. Pero hindi naman tama na lahat-lahat na lang.. Even if you're with the majority, ‘pag may nakita kang mali, dapat sabihin mo rin," Pimentel, a former Senate President himself, pointed out.

'NOT A PUPPET' 

But Senate Majority Leader Vicente 'Tito' Sotto III was quick to defend the current Senate.

“We take exception that some people are calling the Senate as a puppet of the administration... It’s not because you agree with the president, you are already a puppet of the President… Ano lang yun, siguro parang short of name-calling, ganun ang gusto nilang makita sa Senado… Some of them should go and watch some of the Senate proceedings,” Sotto said.

Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto delievers a speech on the floor. ABS-CBN News

Although opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan believes the Senate has shown “greater independence...in previous administrations,” he still gave today’s Senate a "passing grade.”

However, he admitted his frustration over not seeing a thorough investigation into extra-judicial killings and on President Duterte’s foreign policy. He also believes the Senate should have paid more attention to passing pro-poor measures like the Coco Levy Trust Fund.

“Ang concern ko talaga ay there are some pressing issues that I feel the Senate should really be able to address more forcefully. Yun yung isa, yung extra-judicial killings. Ang pakiwari ko rito ay kasi ang findings ng Senado ay parang hindi siya state-sponsored. But ang feeling ko ay masyadong naging mabilis ang pag-terminate ng proceedings,” Pangilinan said.

“The Senate has to assert more its independence because it’s our constitutional duty… Pag meron kaming nakikitang hindi tama, tungkulin ho namin sa ilalim ng saligang batas na manilbihan ...magbantay," he added. 

'MINISTERIAL' BODY

Aside from questions over its independence, the Senate's low output in its first year has raised questions about its performance as a legislature. 

Dean Ma.Fe Villamejor-Mendoza of UP-National College of Public Administration, said the Senate can be gauged based on the quality and quantity of bills it has passed into law, and on how it played its oversight function. 

"They did their best to craft substantive laws that would address the problems of the country… kung ikukumpara natin sa previous congresses, konti lang yung laws that were passed.. parang ministerial,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza was referring to the four bills that the 17th Congress passed into law on its first year: 

-- the P3.35 trillion 2017 General Appropriations Act; 
-- Barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections postponement; 
-- the granting of franchise for GMA Network, Inc.; and,
-- the granting of franchise for Smart Communications.

Of the four, only one originated from the Senate.

The budget and franchise measures stemmed from the Lower House, which, according to the Constitution, is mandated to introduce such kinds of bills.

The number of bills passed into law is actually lower than what was achieved during the Senate’s first year in office in the 15th and 16th Congress.

Despite the small number of enacted measures, Mendoza still gave a passing mark of 6.5 (from a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 as the highest) to the Senate.

But Senator Sotto insists that a fair assessment of the upper house should also include its total output, which means it should include 11 bills approved on third reading that are just awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte's signature.

Sotto said these include: 

-- Establishing a Free Internet Service Program; 
-- Providing Full Free Tuition Subsidy for students enrolled in State Universities and Colleges (SUCs); 
-- Free Irrigation; 
-- Anti-Hospital Deposit Law; 
-- Extending the validity of passports; 
-- Rationalizing and strengthening driver’s license; and, 
-- Designating casinos as covered by the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA).

These bills are among 1,500 bills filed by senators. 

Also, during the past year, the Senate conducted 400 public hearings and 89 sessions. These include the investigation into two Immigration officers for their alleged P50-million extortion try on a Chinese businessman, and the Senate's inquiry linking some policemen to the killing of former Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa. 

Then, there were controversial bills like the death penalty bill and tax reform bills. 

"It's really lack of information kaya siguro napipintasan. Pero pag nakita mo, magugulat ka. Aba, ang dami palang ginawa," Sotto said.

“If you will count those that the Senate passed already...mas marami pa kaming pasado na hindi pa naipapasa ng House,” he added.

But compared to the output of the Senate in the 15th and 16th Congress, there were fewer bills filed under the 17th Congress in the same period.

In fact, of the 1,487 bills filed, 1,245 measures have yet to be deliberated via public hearing. 

And, majority of the more than 50 adopted resolutions are either commendations, condoling with certain personalities, and those that address the chamber’s internal operations.

What’s noteworthy though are resolutions that have to do with the Paris Agreement on climate change and increasing Social Security System pension.

The Senate also bid farewell to former Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Leticia Ramos-Shahani, and Eva Estrada-Kalaw. These women, at one point in their lives, stood up for the Filipino nation’s freedom and democracy.

'WORK MODE' 

On Monday, July 24, the Senate will formally open its Second Regular Session.

Pangilinan assures a more active minority bloc in the chamber by giving “outputs” that the Filipino nation expects and needs.

Sotto, on the part of the super-majority coalition, vowed a chamber in full “work mode.”

Aside from the Death Penalty bill and other issues deemed by the chamber as important, the Senate will also revisit the requested emergency powers for President Duterte to address traffic in Metro Manila.

As Duterte delivers his second State of the Nation address on Monday, what former Senators Pimentel and Saguisag only want to witness is the return of a Senate that is inquisitive, independent, and fearless, an institution with a more active opposition group.

“Importante lamang na huwag pigilan ang oposisyon na magsalita… Ang importante na ang oposisyon 'wag tumahimik na i-point out na hoy, mali yung ginagawa ninyo. Yun ang pinaka-importante. And of course, ang mga senador have the right to speak out also their own reservations kung meron man,” Pimentel said.

“The opposition refines the thinking of those in power kaya we hope that we'll have a stronger, better Senate in the next year or so,” Saguisag said.