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Houses of ill repute

Our Congress is the House of the people. It is meant to be a reflection of the best versions of ourselves. Of late, they’ve been mirroring the worst.

Exhibit A. The epidemic of ethical meltdowns in the Senate. Meltdown is a term favored by Blue Ribbon Chair Senator Dick Gordon. He used it to chide Senator Leila de Lima when the latter went batty after he accused her of material concealment in the Matobato investigation. At the hearings on the P6.5 billion drug smuggling case of the Bureau of Customs, Sen. Gordon had his own meltdown after being baited by Sen. Trillanes’ “Committee de Absuwelto” accusation. 

Self preservation. Pissing contests between titans do have their fleeting entertainment value. But it can never justify the erosion of public confidence in the institutions they represent. The honor and dignity of the chamber and the importance of the subjects taken up demand a fitting degree of decorum, specially from its own members.

Our Constitution recognizes this, hence its Section 16(3), Article VI: “Each House may … punish its Members for disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two-thirds of all its Members, suspend or expel a Member. A penalty of suspension, … , shall not exceed 60 days.” This provision is actually a limitation on their inherent power to discipline – the supermajority vote for suspension or expulsion and the 60-day limit.

Shades of gray. There are two contentious subjects in this provision. First is the concept of disorderly behavior. The Senate is the sole judge of what this means, i.e. majority decides. A check with the Senate rules leaves us with scant guidance. Senate Rules 93 and 94 speak only of acts and language that are unparliamentary, offensive and improper.

Second is the term “punish”. Short of expulsion, which is the only Constitutional means to remove a sitting member of Congress, you can suspend – but only for a limited period, lest the member’s constituency be rendered voiceless, and only if 16 Senators vote to do so. The Senate rules are curiously silent on the lesser disciplinary measures such as censure or reprimand (which have at times been called “soft impeachments”). The Rules of the House of Representatives are more complete as they speak of censure or reprimand as penalties. For these, a mere majority vote is needed to vindicate the dignity of the institution.

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The boy with the dragon tattoo. Last Thursday, we again witnessed questionable behavior on display when Senator Trillanes hurled accusations against Davao Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte with no hard proof to back it up. It was painful to watch how he would accuse the Vice Mayor of being a member of the Chinese Triad and then expect the latter to produce the proof to incriminate himself. We refer to the request for him to display his tattoo.  

This guilt by tattoo strategy would have been a curiosity by itself had it not been preceded by the guilt by selfie tactic, i.e. the slide show of Paolo Duterte and his association with all the implicated players. Pictures, they say, paint a thousand words. Yes, one of those words may be “guilt”. But am sure the word “innocence” and “maybe” are also on that thousand word list.

Yesterday, I caught yet another phenomenon in this new standard of guilt literature: guilt by curfew. PNP NCR Chief Oscar Albayalde declared on national TV that staying out late (as the brutally murdered Carlo Arnaiz and Reynaldo de Guzman were wont to do) means they’re likely to be into irregular activities. This is astonishingly indicative of the state of mind of our lawmen. If you’re a child and are seen out on the streets late at night, you are conclusively presumed to be into nefarious activities. You only have yourself to blame for whatever harm comes your way.

The new Divisoria. With Christmas approaching, its in the Filipino’s DNA to start to look for bargains. Well, Congress is the newest tiangge. There are impeachment endorsements everywhere you look. Of course, bargains as they are, you get them cheap and low quality. This is our Exhibit B: the epidemic of discounted impeachments.

 This is largely occasioned by the debated to death impeachment ground of “betrayal of public trust.” Of course, both the 1986 Constitutional Commission and the Supreme Court have narrowed the coverage of this “catch-all” standard to catch only all that is gross, tyrannical, inexcusable, bad faith and of “such gravity and seriousness as the other grounds of impeachment” – as in Treason and other high crimes, et al. 

Someone please tell our Congressmen that the Constitution did not really provide impeachment mechanisms for low crimes. The independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, the equilibrium among branches are not meant to be threatened every time an official stumbles. Rocking the boat is not supposed to be that easy. Otherwise, this entire construct becomes illusory.

 Even in this day and age of instant gratification, we should remain steadfast against the allure of quick decisions. Whenever the great departments of government collide, there is more than merely personal honor and reputation at stake.  

Wait for Con-Ass. Particularly disturbing is the effort against the Chief Justice. Speaking of hard proof, the Sereno complaint is another one based on nothing but newspaper reports. Chief Justice Sereno is one of the most independent minded Chiefs. She voted against the administration that appointed her in the DAP and Hacienda Luisita cases. Under the Duterte administration, she has spoken out against extra judicial killings, defended judges on the President’s narco list, and championed the rule of law in the celebrated Ilocos 6 House vs Court of Appeals battle. Would you believe that all these instances of independence appear as grounds in the complaint? The 41 congressmen endorsers are attempting a soft amendment of the Constitution by adding a new ground for impeachment: judicial independence.

Unlike the House’s disciplinary power over its members where its discretion is unfettered, the House’s impeachment power does not give it the right to define the grounds for its use. It’s the other way around. Its the existence of the grounds that gives the House it’s power to impeach.

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