2018: How the Senate rose above undemocratic challenges
MANILA, Philippines – 2018 has been a “prolific year” for the Senate in terms of legislation, as what Senate President Vicente Sotto would have the year described.
He cited the number of bills approved by the upper chamber of Congress that was passed into law and those waiting for the President’s approval and signature.
But aside from its “prolific” performance, the Senate was also rife with issues ranging from a senator facing revived charges, a change in leadership to “pork” insertions in the proposed 2019 national budget.
As the year draws to an end, INQUIRER.net looks back at the most divisive issues that rocked the Senate.
Change of leadership
In May, the Senate saw a shift in leadership.
Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III stepped down as Senate President after serving as the upper chamber’s leader for two years.
He made the decision in light of a resolution signed by 15 or majority of senators electing then Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III to take the Senate presidency.
Pimentel also signed the resolution later on and nominated Sotto for the position.
Pimentel was elected Senate President in 2016 at the start of the 17th Congress. He is also president of the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said that a “combination of many incidents in the past” prompted the bid to replace Pimentel as the Senate’s leader.
He cited the move of the PDP-Laban to take in as members rival politicians of their families; Pimentel’s silence when then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez called the Senate as “mababang kapulungan,” and Pimentel’s failure to fight Alvarez’s bid to have the Senate and House vote jointly in any Charter change bid, a move that would have made the Senate irrelevant.
The arrest of Senator Trillanes
One of the legislators, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, was embroiled in an uphill legal battle in 2018 that threatened his liberty.
When President Rodrigo Duterte revoked Trillanes’ amnesty through Proclamation 572, the Chief Executive also ordered the arrest of the senator.
The Department of Justice also filed separate motions before the Makati court seeking the issuance of an alias warrant of arrest as well as a hold departure order for Trillanes.
Amid his impending arrest, Trillanes was placed under the custody of the Senate President.
After the Supreme Court denied the senator’s petition to stop the implementation of Proclamation 572, the Makati City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 150 has also ordered the arrest of Trillanes for rebellion concerning the 2007 Manila Peninsula siege.
When the Makati RTC ordered his arrest, Trillanes, after weeks of holing up in the Senate, voluntarily turned himself to authorities and went through booking procedures at the Makati Central Police Station.
He then posted a P200,000 bail at the Makati RTC. A few days later, he went home.
Later, the Makati RTC Branch 148 dismissed the DOJ’s petition for an arrest order for Trillanes as it rejected the senator’s 2011 coup d’état case, but affirming the validity of Proclamation 572.
The senator was also ordered arrested by the Davao City Regional Trial Court Branch 54 on the four counts of libel charges filed by the presidential son, Paolo Duterte, and his brother-in-law lawyer Manases Carpio.
He posted a P96,000 bail at the Pasay City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 118 for his temporary freedom.
‘Pork’ insertions in proposed 2019 budget
Through a series of budget deliberations, the Senate was able to uncover “pork” insertions in the proposed 2019 national budget.
The upper chamber approved the 2019 budget before the year-end following plenary deliberations on Dec. 4, leaving them only 10 days to tackle the budget before they went to a session break on Dec. 14.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, who was at the helm in discovering the “pork barrel” funds in the budget, had warned of a possible return of “happy pork barrel days” of legislators if left unchecked.
He also warned of a “massive mangling” of the National Expenditure Program (NEP) following Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s assurance that all lawmakers would receive congressional allocations.
He pointed out that any allocation given to congressional districts or congressmen was “pork.”
Lacson insisted that the P60 million allocated for each member of the House of Representatives in the proposed national budget was pork, saying a “blessed few” may even get more.
The senator cited the 2013 Supreme Court decision declaring as unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) also known as “pork barrel.”
In September, the senator said he wanted to move for the deletion of more than P16-billion right-of-way (ROW) funding under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) proposed 2019 budget.
The fund, he said, could be used as another source of funding for projects for legislators. Such funds, he said, are also called pork barrel.
Lacson then blamed “individual insertions” or “pork” for the delay of the approval of the transmittal of the 2019 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) from the House of Representatives to the Senate.
During the plenary deliberations, Lacson alleged that two congressmen had been allotted more than P1 billion each in extra funding for their pet projects in the 2019 budget.
He also disclosed that Arroyo’s district had been allotted P2.4 billion worth of projects after last-minute realignments.
Lacson also revealed an allegedly new scheme of legislators to earn commissions or kickbacks from congressional pork, which involves “parking” large amounts of pork in the allotments for certain “well-connected” lawmakers.
1.) Train law
The Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion, (Train) law took effect on Jan. 1 this year.
It raised the cap for tax-free income but imposed an excise on goods like fuel.
However, last October, six minority senators called for the suspension of the excise tax on fuel and the rollback of levy on fuel through Joint Resolution No. 15.
In the resolution, the senators stressed the need for an intervention of Congress to mitigate the inflationary effects of rising fuel prices by suspending the increases in the excise tax on fuel.
A week later, seventeen senators from the majority bloc also appealed to the President to support their move to suspend further increases in excise taxes in fuel.
In a letter to the President, the senators cited the increases of pump prices for diesel and gasoline for the suspension of the next tranche of the excise tax increase on petroleum products.
2.) Bangsamoro Organic Law
Last July 18, the bicameral conference committee approved the reconciled version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which was renamed the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) or the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).
Days later, the Senate finally ratified BOL that would replace the one that created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The BOL’s ratification came just hours before President Rodrigo Duterte’s state of the nation address in July.
On July 26, President Duterte signed into law the BOL.
The Commission on Elections scheduled the plebiscite for the ratification of the BOL on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6 next year.
3.) Charter Change (Cha-cha)
At the beginning of the year, both chambers of Congress hit an impasse on how to vote on any amendments to the 1987 Constitution.
Some lawmakers pushed for joint voting, but it was the united stand of the Senate that both chambers of Congress should vote separately on any amendments or revisions to the Constitution which prevailed.
Last January, Senator Panfilo Lacson filed a resolution urging the Senate to compose itself as a constituent assembly (Con-ass) to propose amendments to the Constitution.
Lacson pointed out three modes on how an amendment or a revision of the Constitution must be done.
Speaker Arroyo likewise filed a resolution later in the year pushing for separate voting of the Senate and the House should they agree to convene a Con-ass on Cha-cha.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, who chairs the committee on constitutional amendments, warned of a “constitutional crisis” with the House of Representative’s decision to push through with Cha-cha even without the Senate.
He was reacting to Alvarez’s statement that the Senate and the House need not convene in a joint session to propose amendments to the 1987 Constitution.
In the middle of the year, senators agreed not to rush the discussion on Cha-cha and rejected a no election (no-el) scenario floated by some members of the House of Representatives.
Sotto said that the chances of Cha-cha being approved at the Senate within 2018 were “very slim.”
After Arroyo’s supporters in the House succeeded in ousting Alvarez, senators were united against Cha-cha because of the former president.
Senator Lacson said there was an “overwhelming sentiment” among senators that Arroyo would “aspire” to become prime minister.
Lacson also said that the proposed Cha-cha “is just waiting to be cremated” at the Senate.
Senators also slammed then Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson for her video with a certain Drew Olivar dancing and singing a jingle about federalism, which lyrics included: “I-pepe, i-pepe, i-dede, i-dede, i-pepe-pepe-pepederalismo!”
Before Congress took a break, the House of Representatives has approved on the third and final readings its draft federal charter, which proposed no term limits for legislators.
Probes on controversial issues
Aside from legislation, the Senate was also able to conduct probes on several controversial issues that plagued the nation in 2018.
1.) Xiamen Air runway accident
The Senate conducted a probe on the runway mishap at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) this year.
Last August 16, a Xiamen aircraft skidded off the runway of the airport, affecting thousands of passengers.
Senator Grace Poe, chair of the Senate committee on public services, said there had been lapses in the way Xiamen Air and airport authorities responded to the incident.
2.) Dengvaxia vaccine
The Senate’s Blue Ribbon Committee tackled the government’s dengue vaccination program.
In a draft report, the committee recommended the prosecution of former Benigno Aquino III and other former government officials “for all the tragedy, damage and possible deaths” resulting from the mass vaccination program.
The draft report found Aquino, former Health Secretary Janette Garin and former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, among others, liable for violating the antigraft law for the purchase and distribution of Dengvaxia.
Fourteen or majority of the senators have signed the committee report.
The program became controversial after Dengvaxia’s French manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, said earlier this year that the use of the vaccine could cause more severe dengue symptoms in people who have not contracted the disease before.
READ: Dengvaxia report
3.) P11-billion shabu shipment
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee launched a probe on the multi-billion “shabu” (methamphetamine) shipments discovered in August this year.
Four magnetic lifters with traces of the illegal drug were found in a warehouse in General Mariano Alvarez in Cavite province, the shabu inside was estimated to have weighed one ton, worth P6.8 billion.
The Bureau of Customs (BOC) also seized an abandoned freight container at the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) that yielded two magnetic lifters containing 500 kilograms of shabu worth P4.3 million.
Last September, Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee, moved to cite Jimmy Guban, an officer of BOC intelligence and investigation service. Gordon alleged that Guban was lying about his role in the handling of the magnetic lifters.
Later, Gordon also cited for contempt and ordered the detention in the Senate of Marina Signapan of SMYD Trading, “consignee on record” of the shipment of magnetic lifters.
He refused to believe her statement on who had paid her P180,000 to be the consignee on record.
Later, Signapan skipped the Senate probe because she felt “threatened,” claiming suspicious looking men had been watching her house.
Last October, Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, deputy collector for passenger service at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, alleged that then Customs Commission Isidro Lapeña could be involved in a cover-up of the smuggling of shabu.
Gordon has also called for lifestyle checks on personalities linked to the P6.8 billion shabu smuggling case.
He was referring to agents of the Bureau of Customs (BoC), Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) deputy director general for administration Ismael Fajardo and Senior Supt. Eduardo Acierto of the Philippine National Police Civil Security Group.
In the same month, then Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña was reassigned as the Director-General of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda).
Last November, Jimmy Guban, who was then resigned from his post at the BOC, was placed under the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the Department of Justice.
In December, Gordon concluded the Senate probe on the shabu smuggling case. In its report, the Blue Ribbon Committee recommended a lifestyle check and further investigation into 18 individuals tagged in the multi-billion shabu shipment.
However, the report did not include then BOC Commission Lapeña to the list of individuals to be further investigated.
READ: Lapeña out of Customs
4.) Frigate deal
At the start of the year, senators from the minority bloc moved to investigate the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization program, notably the P15.7 billion frigate acquisition project.
Then Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go was alleged to have interfered in the said project.
Last February, Go showed at the Senate probe to clear his name.
He said that earlier reports by Rappler linking him to the frigates deal controversy were “fake news.”
Go offered to resign if proven that he had intervened in the frigates project.
The former SAP was accompanied by the administration’s Cabinet members to show support for him.
Among the Cabinet members present were then Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, then Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and then Asst. Sec. Mocha Uson, then Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, then Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Solicitor General Jose Calida, and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.
Actor Robin Padilla was also at the gallery to show his support for Go.
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