MANILA—A member of the Malacañang committee drafting a new federal constitution sought to restrict Congress’ contempt powers and prevent legislators from “bullying” witnesses under the guise of conducting inquiries to craft new laws or review existing ones.
Many legislators have been criticized in the past for using congressional hearings to scold witnesses, and in some cases, even citing them for contempt for refusing to respond to a question or if they deemed the answer unacceptable.
Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law, said contempt should be used as an option only when a witness’ refusal to answer a question “is without legal justification.”
“Refusal to answer a question irrelevant to the subject of inquiry or to the proposed legislation shall not constitute contempt,” he said in his proposal submitted to the consultative committee.
“Contempt does not mean 'I do not like your answer.' Eh kung yun talaga ang sagot ng witness?” he told ABS-CBN News.
Witnesses cited for contempt — and are detained in the process —may question the move before the courts, he said.
Hearings in aid of legislation, he said, should be confined to the proposed law and should not be used “solely for the purpose of recommending the prosecution of criminal conduct or administrative misdemeanor.”
“In the past, these hearings have been abused and misused,” he said in a phone interview.
“The whole issue is treated as a spectacle of witnesses being harangued, being bullied, being badgered in the Senate or in the House of Representatives — and for days on end with no result in the end!”
Another Aquino proposal is a “question hour” under the federal-presidential setup earlier agreed upon by the consultative committee.
It allows Congress or any of its committees to summon a cabinet member or any head of office “at any time” to inquire about the execution of a particular law.
Aquino said the proposal would make it clear that a cabinet official’s appearance “is not only upon the initiative of the executive but also upon summons of Congress.”
“Really, the reason here is to give Congress the ability to monitor, to oversee, to superintend what’s happening with government,” he said.
“Because while it is true that there is a separation of powers, the powers of government also have to be coordinated and have to be in sync so that government works.”