Will Senate assert its independence in charter change, no-el issues?
President Rodrigo Duterte knows exactly what he wants. But when it comes to legislation, the Senate may not always give whatever he wants.
In the first two years of the Duterte administration, the Senate has been a generous “partner for change” of the President, delivering on his legislative agenda and campaign promises.
When he stepped down in May 2018, former Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said that the upper chamber, under his leadership, delivered some of the priority legislation and promises of the President.
“We delivered,” Pimentel, who is president of the Duterte’s party, PDP-Laban, said. “If we audit the campaign promises, I think the President and the Senate and the House of Representatives were able to meet these because of the support of the other legislators.”
According to Malacañang, Duterte has signed 133 laws since 2016 – 39 of them national laws and 94 local laws. This is more than the number of laws signed by his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, in his first two years of office.
Some of the priority and most significant measures enacted during the President Duterte’s first two years include:
- Tax Reform for for Acceleration and Inclusion (Train)
- An Act Extending the Validity of Philippine Passports
- An Act Extending the Validity Period of Drivers’ Licenses
- Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act
- Free Irrigation Services Act
- An Act Strengthening the Anti-Hospital Deposit Law
- Ease of Doing Business Act
The President also recently signed the Philippine Mental Health Act, Anti-Hazing Act of 2018 and National School Feeding Law, among others.
He has yet to sign major measures, such as the Filipino Identification System and the Occupational Safety and Health Standards (OSHS).
Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Pimentel’s successor, said the Senate delivered what was expected of them.
“To sum it up in one word: Magaling!” he said.
As he took over the reins of leadership, Sotto, the Senate’s most senior member, vowed to protect the chamber’s independence while being supportive of the President’s legislative agenda.
But to serve as the check to the President’s major legislative agenda – charter change and the country’s shift to federalism – the Senate has to remain independent.
The chamber’s independence will be put to test starting on Monday, when the Congress resumes to hear the President deliver his third State of the Nation Address (Sona).
The House of Representatives and the Senate have been bickering on the process of the amending the 1987 Constitution to facilitate the country’s shift to federalism.
House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said his chamber would proceed even without the Senate, but the senators begged to differ.
Alvarez has proposed no-elections, or “no-el,” scenario in 2019, even through a people’s initiative.
Jan Robert Go, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, believes the Senate can start asserting its independence by blocking moves to railroad charter change and the push for a “no-el” scenario in 2019.
“The Senate is usually seen as the more independent chamber of Congress,” Go told INQUIRER.net. “So even ‘if], for example, they have majority, the idea of majority is just for the purposes of leadership. Each senator is free, each senator is an individual republic in the Senate.”
In terms of the chamber’s legislative record, Go said, the Senate has promptly passed the President’s priority measures. But there are other measures still pending at the committee level.
“You can see that even if they have the majority, they still keep the image of the Senate as the check to the aggressiveness of the House of Representatives,” he said.
“Even if the majority members are vocally supportive of the President, in terms of how they actually work in the legislative agenda of the President, it doesn’t automatically translate to that,” he added.
Go cited the reimposition of death penalty as an example.
The House approved the death penalty bill in third and final reading in March 2017. But the measure is still pending at the committee level at the Senate.
In a recent interview with reporters, Sotto himself said that the Senate could withstand pressure from the public or even the President.
“The Senate was created to be independent, fair, impartial, but courageous,” he said. “Therefore it was created, I believe, to withstand pressure from public opinion, but also pressure from presidential powers.”
“We will listen, but we sill also digest what we hear,” Sotto said. “We shall decide on what will be good for the majority of the Filipinos.”
What’s in it for them?
The Senate’s independence heavily relies on the character and individual interests of every senator, especially now that term extension through what many critics see as unconstitutional “no-el” scenario is being dangled right before them.
The prospect of a term extension can be a boon for at least 11 senators, six of whom are re-electionists and five have already served two terms.
Many senators, whether in the majority or in the minority, have expressed opposition to the cancellation of the elections, citing unconstitutionality and self-serving motivations.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the Senate would block such moves.
“It goes without saying, the majority of the senators, even those running for re-election, will fight tooth and nail any attempt to cancel the 2019 midterm elections simply because it is wrong and self-serving,” Lacson he said.
Sen. Francis Escudero, who has already served two terms, was baffled by Alvarez’s obsession for “no-el.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t know why he seems so obsessed with postponing the election when neither the people nor the Palace supports such postponement,” Escudero said.
On federalism, Sotto himself said the sense of the Senate was not to rush the shift, pointing out that the Bangsamoro Organic Law would be a good “test case” for the country’s shift to a federal type of government.
Duterte now has a draft charter that is expected to be handed down to the Congress anytime soon.
For Go, federalism will be a tough issue to contend with given the “concession” available and its future implication on the power of politicians.
“Senators would have to weigh in today and tomorrow: What’s in it for me today and how will it affect me tomorrow? Especially [since] these are politicians and changes on the political system will have repercussions on them,” Go said.
“Will they still be senators?” he added. “Thinking of senators now elected by regions, will they have stronghold in a particular region that they will be able to continue as senators?”
“At the end of the day, it’s all about their interests,” he said. “The rhetoric is ‘the interest of the Filipino people.’ But it’s more of their interest as politicians to keep themselves in power.” /atm
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