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Why we need the Senate

LEGISLATIVE FORCE From left Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, former Sen. Manny Villar, and Sen. Pia Cayetano

LEGISLATIVE FORCE From left Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, former Sen. Manny Villar, and Sen. Pia Cayetano

By Alfredo N. Mendoza V

Governance has rightfully evolved from being an authoritarian system led by demagogues, or self-appointed individuals, to libertarian or socialist democracies led by the principles of freedom, due process, and consent. Laws, which once rose from the unbridled will of kings and despots, have now become the concerns of society—with the rich and the downtrodden, made not by dictators, but by a council of duly elected representatives called senators.

It was the ancient Roman Republic that had laid the foundations of a democratic system that eventually inspired modern democracies that have followed. Rome created the idea of vetoing, the concept of checks and balances, elected bureaucrats called senators, the three branches of government, bicameralism, and even executive secretaries.  Rome was the inspiration for the formation of the United States government, which was the first constitutional republic in the world and the inspiration of other democratic governments like the Philippines.

In the Philippines, the bicameral Congress is divided into two chambers, the Senate, which is composed of 24 senators, and the House of Representatives, which is composed of house representatives locally elected from legislative districts, and nationally from the party-list system.

The Philippine Senate, now celebrating its first centenary, marking a century of legislation, has been with the government through the most crucial times of the country. While it cannot be denied that many people have an aversion toward government and sometimes view the Senate unfavorably due to a suspicion of corruption and intrigue, without the Senate and its constituents, there wouldn’t be a challenger to the virtually limitless power of the chief executive.

It was the Senate that laid the paperwork for the independence of the country from the US in 1946, albeit with unequal agreements; it was Senate’s decision to not open the “second envelope” during the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada that sparked the movement that ousted him; it was the Senate, through Vicente Sotto I, that created a law protecting journalists; it was the Senate that fought and criticized valiantly the Marcos regime through the fiery rhetoric of then Senators Jovito Salonga, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., and Gerardo Roxas; it was the Senate which opted for the non-renewal of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines, and, recently, it was the Senate that voted to pass the Reproductive Health Law.  Through these landmark events, the Senate has proved itself as an important institution in government, as both an equalizer and guardian of laws, regardless of the historic controversy.

“In the current set up, the Senate is important in providing a national perspective in making laws. The House may at times become too myopic in passing laws, especially when the representative is from a dynasty. The Senate is also important in equalizing or balancing the great powers of the President in terms of the bully pulpit—the Senators have an equal national stage and voice to be able to counter or check what the President is doing,” said human rights lawyer Jesus Falcis III.


Common misconceptions and roles of Senate

Congress is tasked to create statutes which must reflect the goals, aspirations, and ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Congress’s job is also to renew old laws to keep up with the times, repeal irrelevant ones, to ensure said laws are faithfully executed according to its intent, to declare the existence of a state of war, and to concur to ratified treaties with other countries.

Though seemingly different from each other, the Senate and the House of Representatives serve as a counter-weight to each other—to thoroughly create laws with the consent of the other. While both serve as legislative bodies, the nationally elected Senate is tasked with legislation on a national concern while the House of Representatives, on a local level.

One of the woes of Filipinos, however, is the lack of understanding on how government works—the principle functions of the three branches of government, and recent noise over social media is a testament to that disturbing fact—that many Filipinos do not entirely understand how it works, or what due process is for, and often opt for the rule of strongmen.

According to lawyer Rigor Pascual, a court attorney and a political law lecturer at the University of Santo Tomas, one of the most common misconceptions of people toward Senate is about Senate investigations, or Senate inquiries in aid of legislation.

“In the mid-1990s, a proliferation of Senate investigations was started.  The first of these high-profile Senate-led inquiries was the Brunei and Japanese beauties, an investigation into the alleged sending of Filipinas to other countries to serve as ‘entertainers.’ From that time, Filipinos tend to believe that Senate investigations are an avenue to prove the truth or falsity of the allegations under investigations. They thought that these investigations are like a trial that one will be condemned and others, declared innocent,” Pascual said.

While it has become often that Senate or House inquiries are turned into a forum of mudslinging and sharp rhetoric, the purpose of such is to aid legislation—to create laws which would remedy the problem being probed,  and not prosecute individuals, which the Senate cannot do.  Usually, Senate inquiries happen in the advent of tragedies or controversies like recently, the Mamasapano Encounter, the review for emergency powers of the President in confronting the traffic problem in Manila, the inquiry on the $81M Bangladesh Bank Heist, the Kidapawan Massacre, the Quirino Grandstand Hostage-Taking Incident, and in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ondoy, and recently, on alleged extrajudicial killings.

“But the purpose of Senate [and House] investigations is more than just finding out the truth, and definitely, Senate investigations are not judicial trials that condemn and impose penalties. Lastly, the investigation cannot be made for the sole purpose of finding the liability of a person. The main purpose of a Senate inquiry is for the aid of legislation, meaning, investigations are conducted in order to help the Senate or the House to create laws that would remedy the problem under investigation—investigations therefore are mere tools to aid our Representatives to craft laws,” Pascual said.

Falcis also added that another misconception is that Senate is higher than the House and that Senate holds the authority to initiate a treaty with another sovereign state.

“The most common misconception is that the Senate has the power to ratify treaties. The truth is that the power to ratify treaties is with the President. The President is the head diplomat or chief architect of foreign policy. The role of the Senate is not to ratify (or enter) into treaties but to agree in the ratification,” said Falcis, who is also a Political Science lecturer at Far Eastern University. International treaties like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will not be valid until concurred by two-thirds of the Senate.

“Another misconception is that the Senate, as a body, is a higher body than the House. In truth, they are equal bodies—even if Senators are nationally elected—albeit given different powers and duties,” said Falcis.

Falcis also added that the Senate’s power to concur in ratification of treaties has been circumvented several times and such must be the subject of future legislation.

“The Senate’s power to concur in the ratification of treaties (or to check and balance the President) has been watered down and diluted by jurisprudence and the ability of the President to call treaties as ‘executive agreements.’  This is a challenge that must be solved by the Senate through legislation or future constitutional amendments, if such happens,” Falcis explained.


Bicameralism and other powers of Senate

The main difference between the Senate and the House of Representatives is seen in their respective powers and laws, which may originate from them. Bills, which are the formal legislative propositions made by either Senate or the House, turn into effective laws after going through a series of legislative processes, debates, readings, interpellations and modifications, and then concurrence with the other house of Congress, before being signed by the chief executive and published in the media.

“Generally, bills may originate from any chamber, and the subject matter may vary. The Constitution, however, restricts certain bills to exclusively originate from the House and cannot originate from the Senate.  These bills are: appropriation bills (budget allocations), revenue bills (proposals to impose taxes), tariff bills (proposal to impose taxes on imports), bills authorizing the increase of public debt, bills of local application (a proposal that would only affect a limited portion of the country, like changing the name of a street) and private bills (a proposal that would benefit one particular person (like a proposal to give Filipino citizenship to a foreigner),” Pascual explained.

Pascual, also a lecturer at De La Salle College of Law, explained that though any kind of bill may originate from either house with the exception of the above, the nature of the Senate must focus on a national agenda, although in theory, nothing stops the House from proposing bills which are of national concern.

The Senate also has the power to judge on motions for impeachment initiated by the House of Representatives and to conduct “congressional oversight”—to directly assess the efficiency and enforcement of laws passed to the Executive Branch.

“While the House of the Representatives has the exclusive power to initiate the impeachment process, it is the Senate that transforms itself into the Senate Impeachment Court that would try and decide cases of impeachment. This is what happened in the past. The House of Representatives impeached President Estrada, Chief Justice Davide, OmbudsmanMerceditas Gutierrez, and Chief Justice Renato Corona,” Pascual said.

“Congress is empowered to observe the implementation of the law that they passed. The purpose of oversight is to look for blind spots in the law that needs a remedy. The power of congressional oversight, therefore, empowers Congress to look on how the law is implemented and look at its imperfections. After noting its defects, Congress can pass remedial legislation to cure them,” said Pascual.

The nature and relationship between the Senate and the House is one of the key features of a bicameral legislature. Though not an insurer against hastily made bills, a bicameral system functions as an insurer against local agendas, and strives to modify bills arising from either house to work according to the constitution. The Senate, however, is often made the last phase in making sure that bills, before turning into laws, are constitutionally sound and benefit all.

“Initially, the Constitutional Commission, the body that drafted the 1987 Constitution, proposed a unicameral Congress, but, eventually, they decided with a bicameral Congress. The reason for this is that it makes sure that bills are deliberated thoroughly through the use of two perspectives—the perspective of the Senate which is national in character, and a local perspective which is the perspective of the House—the Philosophy being, the more eyes we put in the law-making processes, we produce a more deliberated law or a wiser law. Further, bicameralism prevents too much concentration of legislative power in one body,” Pascual said.

Unicameralism, however, as the country experienced it under the Marcos administration, which was parliamentary in character, through the controversial Regular Batasang Pambansa, also has its advantages, according to Falcis, who leans more toward unicameralism (and also a federal form of government) than a double-chamber congress.

“From what I know, the Parliament [under the Marcos regime] was a mere rubber stamp. The Parliament and Marcos, as the President, both had legislative powers, but it was Marcos who really exercised the power substantively. The Parliament was mostly left to passing bills about names of streets and other trivial matters,” said Falcis, also a minority rights advocate and professional debate coach.

“Unicameralism provides for a more efficient passage of laws because there is only one legislature and also avoids the presence of a bicameral conference committee, which is accused of being the third legislative chamber that can circumvent the will of lawmakers,” Falcis said, referring to the bicameral conference committee, which has the power to resolve conflicting views of each chamber of congress on a passage of a law.​

In the last 100 years of the Philippine Senate, there have been many controversies, eras of peace, and war.  But the Senate remains relevant as a contemporary government institution not because it wants to, but because we, as a nation, naturally need it. The Senate has been graced by statesmen of stature of brilliance, from Jose Avelino, to Sergio Osmeña, Jovito Salonga, Benigno Aquino Jr., Juan Flavier, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and it became the training ground for future presidents—almost all of the 16 Philippine Presidents were senators first. A lot has been achieved by the Senate, but a lot needs to be done still for the current Senate to shape the course of the new administration. The Senate stands not only as a lawmaking body, but as a constant guardian and overseer of the very government it labored to create.