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Of laws and men

By Alfredo N. Mendoza V

We are a government of laws, and not of men—so said John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, during a tumultuous time in the 18th century.  But little did Adams know that his quote would forever be revered in democracy and liberal countries, including the Philippines.

Laws, which maintain the soundness of a country, are the job of no other than the Congress—the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both houses have come a long way from the turbulent turn of the 20th century.

While seemingly different from one another, the Senate and House of Representatives of the Philippines function as a counterweight to each other—the Senate, which focuses more on the national agenda, and the House of Representatives, which focuses on a local scale.  While senators are elected nationally, house representatives are elected on a local level.

Both, however, cannot make laws without the consent of each other.  On one hand, appropriations, private bills (bills of local application), and money bills (taxation) must originate from the House of Representatives, while Senate, on the other hand, is tasked with concurring with treaties initiated by the president and voting upon cases of impeachment initiated by the House.

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  • Sen. Teofilo Sison
  • Sen. Elpidio Quirino
  • Sen. Arturo Tolentino
  • Sen. Helena Benitez
  • Sen. Juan Flavier
  • Sen. Claro M. Recto
  • Sen. Raul Roco
  • Sen. Jose Avelino
  • Sen. Jose Diokno
  • Sen. Soc Rodrigo
  • Sen. Vicente Sotto
  • Sen. Jovito Salonga
  • Sen. Maria Kalaw Katigbak
  • Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez
  • Sen. Gaudencio Antonino (left) pounds on desk as he charges Melvin Peterson (right), an American businesman, of discourtesy at Manila International Airport.
  • Sen. Lorenzo Tañada
  • Sen. Genaro Magsaysay
  • Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago
  • Sen. Eva Kalaw
  • Sen. Eulogio Rodriguez
  • Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong
  • Sen. Camilo Osias
  • Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr.

According to Hector S. De Leon, author and lawyer, this method of Congress, the bicameral system, is made to ensure that laws are made properly and not “railroaded” or made hastily—this is often the expertise of the Senate, which would often be the last phase in determining the constitutionality, viability, and necessity of bills.

On Oct. 16, the Senate of the Philippines will be celebrating its first centenary, marking a century of legislation through chaos and stability.  But even before the Senate and the House of Representatives, there have been many epochs of lawmaking in the Philippines.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish and Islam, the Philippines was not a single country, but an amalgamation of ancient barangays, the country’s version of Greek city-states, found mostly in medieval Visayas, ancient lakanates like the Kingdom of Tondo and Maynila in Luzon, and Indianized rajahnates in Mindanao.

According to the History of the Filipino People by National Scientist Teodoro Agoncillo, in all these pre-Islamic and pre-Spanish government types, absolute legislative authority often rested in the hands of the datu, rajah, or lakan, who proposes a law to a council of elders or nobles (maginoo), who then approves such law, modifies, or vetoes the same, in a manner similar to republican government.  New laws are then announced by umalahokans or town criers or heralds.  Laws at this time were both a collection of codified and non-verbal traditions.

When Islam came to the islands, the legislative authority and interpretation of laws then shifted to the Islamic scholars, in a time when sultanates or Islamic kingdoms, like the Sulu, Maguindanao, and Lanao Sultanates, replaced rajahnates in Mindanao and in many parts of Visayas.  The Islamic scholars codified various doctrines or fiqhs, which became the bases of laws promulgated by the datus and sultans.

For the most part of the Spanish occupation, it was the gobernador-general that maintained executive, judicial, and legislative authority through his office and the Manila Real Audencia, and operated under the Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies). But it wasn’t until the year 1810 when native Filipinos were finally given the chance for Spanish citizenship, and eventually, representation in the Cortes Generales, the supreme legislative body of Spain, under the new Cadiz Charter.

This reform, however, was short-lived, because by 1837, the Cadiz Charter was superseded by a stricter charter, which removed Filipino representation and placed the Philippines under absolute                         rule again.

After the Biak-na-Bato Republic, in the culmination of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, a revolutionary government and legislature was put in place, patterned after the Cadiz Charter of 1810.  When the First Philippine Republic, which was also the first democratic republic in Asia, was established in 1898; the Malolos Congress was its unicameral legislative body. In the year that followed, however, both the Congress and the official government ceased to exist in the defeat of the nascent Republic in the Philippine-American War.

When the US occupied the Philippines in 1899, the former, under President William McKinley, sent a commission led by Dr. Jacob Schurman in what was known as the Schurman Commission, to survey the Islands and recommend a course of action for the US Federal Government.  The Taft Commission, which was considered the first legislature of the country under the American regime, which followed the Schurman Commission, held both executive and legislative power until it was finally formalized into a fully elected bicameral Philippine Legislature by the Philippine Organic Act of 1902, and eventually, the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916.  It was under this Congress that the Revised Penal Code (Act 3815) was passed, changing criminal law and penology in the country forever.

The Philippine Legislature comprised the Philippine Commission and the National Legislature, which became the Senate and House of Representatives respectively under constitutional revisions of the 1935 Commonwealth Charter.

With the lowering of the American flag in 1946, followed by complete independence from the United States, the Congress, now under the New Republic, implemented Republic Act 1 (RA 1), which set forth the appropriations of funds for the creation of the different branches of government after the war. Other highlights of the Congress during this time were the passage of the Press Freedom Law in 1946 by then Sen. Vicente Sotto, which gave the members of the press the right against being compelled to reveal their sources; the passage of the Civil Code of the Philippines in 1949, the Anti-Corrupt and Graft Practices Act in 1960, and the passage of the Anti-Wiretapping Law in 1965.

Congress took a dark turn in history when the Marcos regime took over in 1972.  In the same year, the Marcos administration proposed a new constitution, the 1972 Constitution, which was ratified in a bogus 1973 plebiscite. The new constitution introduced a unicameral Congress, the infamous Batasang Pambansa (of which Ferdinand Marcos himself was a member), and a parliamentary style of government.

The Batasang Pambansa was dubbed by many as a “rubber stamp” congress since the same has been allegedly involved in streamlining bills for the benefit of the Marcos Administration, through sequestration and laws in favor of the administration’s “cronies.”  While the ill-reputation of the Batasang Pambansa remains a fact, it changed in 1984, when 56 members of the Batasang Pambansa attempted to impeach Marcos through a resolution.  The resolution, however, did not gain traction in the Batasan and soon died.

The current Congress is the product of the 1986 Constitution.  It was returned to its previous bicameral form, responsible for the creation of notable laws, like the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in 1988, the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the Cordillera Administrative Region in 1989, the creation of the Commission on the Filipino Language (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino) in 1991, the Local Government Code in 1991, the Anti-Hazing Law in 1995, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, and the RH Law in 2012.

While most people would say that the Philippine government is a copycat of the United States, the truth is far from it.  In fact, the US and Philippine government are so different, both in form and in substance, that if the two countries borrowed each other’s government, they won’t be able to function properly. This is especially true when we talk about laws—while both countries have a body of laws and codes to follow, the Philippines follows a stricter inclination to laws, meaning, laws are expected to be followed to the letter; while in the US, laws are interpreted in light of different situations, which vary from state to state, and which would create legal precedents for future courts to follow.

Laws and government are a sign of a progressive civilization, which follows the concept of consent.  If that is true, then the Philippines would have long been a civilized land, long before the Spanish even arrived.  Today, laws are the livelihood of congressmen—senators and representatives alike.

Many aspiring statesmen, before the start of their political careers, would want to look back to the hundred years of the Senate, when prominent statesmen have battled valiantly for the welfare of the people, the likes of whom include Jose Diokno, Claro M. Recto, Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo, Jovito Salonga, Vicente Sotto I, Jose Avelino, Lorenzo Tañada, Helena Benitez, Raul Roco, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and many more—individuals that every Filipino politician emulates.

From these individuals, it must also follow that laws must be faithfully made for the benefit of the people. While we may agree that today’s political scene might be a return to the dark period of legislation, especially in the age of social media, for as long as the people are at the threshold of power, there will always be bright and fearless lawmakers to guide and inspire them—after all, absolute authority resides in the people and emanates from government. For if we learn now how our government works, and how laws are made, we will always be a government of laws, not of men.