What do senators do? Clue: It's not just lawmaking

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 15 2019 10:37 AM

MANILA -- Faced with a 5-minute time limit onstage, a candidate for senator entertained a Pampanga crowd with a song and talked very little about his platform, an illustration of how votes are courted in the Philippines' colorful, personality-centered campaigns.

Getting worked up by crowd-pleasers is easy. But whether they know what the job requires of them, if they win, is something voters should keep in mind when picking their senators.

The Philippine constitution provides the basic requirements of age, citizenship, residency, and literacy for senators. But it also places a heavy burden on them with tasks requiring much more than basic literacy.

"Napakalaking requirement yung pag-aaral, pagbabasa, pagiging competent sa isang larangan, na malalim ang pang-unawa sa mga issues na may kinalaman sa mga kababayan natin," public administration professor Edna Co told ABS-CBN News.

(Education, literacy and competence in one's field, a deep understanding of issues concerning our countrymen are huge requirements.)

LAWMAKING

Senators are primarily lawmakers, a job requiring a broad understanding of issues, identifying gaps in policy that can be addressed through legislation. It includes improving on existing laws through amendments.

A senator’s thinking should then be "prospective, strategic, and directional," according to Co, who has designed modules for first-time legislators on the rudiments of lawmaking.

Co’s program included understanding that shepherding a bill into law requires engagement and compromise with other members of Congress, stakeholders, and the executive branch of government.

"Because what you want does not usually come to fruition," Co said in Filipino. "So how do you listen, how do you influence, how do you negotiate with fellow legislators and our people?"

CRASH COURSE

Senators are allowed to tap the services of a regular staff and consultants.

Co usually required first-time senators requesting a crash course from her to bring members of their legislative staff because they would be doing much of the job as well.

Daily sessions tailor-fit for a specific legislator usually lasted a week, said the professor, who has trained around 80 first-time House members in different batches.

Crash courses offered routinely by a number of schools help legislators "catch up with the curve," said professor Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

But lawmakers also need "some level of appreciation" of legislative work, he said.

"If you’re gonna all depend on a crash course, then you probably should not have been the person sent there," he told ABS-CBN News.

OVERSIGHT

The Senate also performs an "oversight" function often through investigations "in aid of legislation," a crucial task in a political system of checks and balances.

Oversight also means reviewing how particular laws are implemented by relevant government agencies.

Voters can firm up this role by putting “really good, independent-minded leaders in the Senate,” Mendoza said.

“Voters should understand that voting is not just a right, a privilege — it is also a grave responsibility,” he said.

“If we make a mistake with our vote, if we vote for someone who ends up becoming a thief, becoming corrupt, or choosing (bad) policies, then we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens that we helped send such a person to a position of power and who ends up doing harm to us.”

BUDGET

Senators have a say on how public money will be spent by the government based on a national budget. The budget bill begins with the House of Representatives based on an expenditure program prepared by the executive department. But the Senate examines the budget and can introduce amendments as well. 

APPOINTMENTS

Senators sit in the Commission on Appointments, which scrutinizes those handpicked by the President for confirmation—again, an important task in a system of checks and balances.

Appointees required by the constitution to go through the commission include cabinet officials, ambassadors, top military officers, and members of constitutional commissions.

IMPEACHMENT TRIAL JUDGES

Aside from making laws, senators sit as judges in an impeachment trial, part of a process to remove officials accused of committing “culpable violation of the constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.”

The Senate, sitting as an impeachment court, decides all impeachment cases emanating from the House of Representatives, which serves as prosecutor.

Seven of the 62 senatorial candidates in this year's midterm elections sat as judges either in the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada in 2000 or of that of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012.

TREATY

Concurrence by at least two-thirds (16 out of 24 if complete) of senators is needed for treaties or international agreements entered into by the Philippine government to take effect.

Members of the chamber should then have an understanding of international relations and how these agreements “reflect our national interest,” Co said.

Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte, facing preliminary examination before the International Criminal Court, pulled the Philippines out of the Rome Statute that created the body and was ratified in 2011.

The withdrawal is set to take effect one year later on March 17. 

A total of 24 agreements were submitted to the Senate for concurrence between October 2016 and March 2018.

STATE OF WAR

The power to declare the existence of a state of war rests solely on Congress, meaning it’s another responsibility carried by senators as members of the upper house.

Legislators may also revoke or extend martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

The president’s grant of amnesty also requires the concurrence of Congress.

Given the enormous responsibilities of a senator, Mendoza said voters should make an effort to look into a candidate’s competence, character, and track record.

“We should get out of our comfort zones with the same last names, which are essentially codes for the same political dynasties,” he said.

“There are many good citizens out there who could serve us well and who have no conflict of interest with public service.”

For updates on Halalan 2019 click here