SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 12, 2017 - 4:00pm

The rules allow it, so the House of Representatives, in a plenary vote, reversed the decision of its justice panel to junk the impeachment complaint against Chairman Andres Bautista of the Commission on Elections.

Impeachment is one of the processes by which Congress can provide checks and balances, curbing abuses of the president, the chief justice and the heads of constitutional bodies such as the Comelec. (Unfortunately, lawmakers can’t be impeached.)

The House move on Bautista, however, reminds us of the fact that in this country, impeachment is nothing more than a political numbers game.

Voting 131-75 with two abstentions, the House rejected the motion to adopt the ruling of its justice committee, which deemed the impeachment complaint against Bautista to be insufficient in form.

Bautista must now prepare for his impeachment trial before the Senate, where the presiding officer will be Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, unless she herself is impeached before then.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez made it clear that Bautista could spare himself from an impeachment trial if he made his resignation effective immediately instead of Dec. 31, as the Comelec chief announced. Bautista said the delayed resignation would pave the way for a smooth transition.

He told me the other day that he felt “weird” after his impeachment, believing he already had an understanding with Malacañang about his post-dated resignation following a “cordial meeting” on Tuesday with Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea. The resignation letter was submitted to Malacañang on Wednesday morning. Bautista denied striking a deal with the House leadership for his immediate resignation in exchange for avoiding impeachment.

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If the plenary can overturn the recommendation of the panel that conducts the probe of an impeachment complaint, why bother with the process? House members can save time, effort and public funds by just voting directly in plenary, and then tossing the issue to the Senate for resolution.

Our government has top officials whose work requires a wide room for independent action and decision-making, free from harassment, nuisance suits and political pressure. But no one enjoys absolute power in a democracy, so the Constitution provided for the impeachment of those officials in case of abuse of power and betrayal of public trust or other forms of wrongdoing.

The way Congress is wielding its power, however, impeachment is being reduced chiefly to a political exercise. Of course it is a political exercise; it is a numbers game. But the basis for ousting an impeachable official must always be clearly established, with incontrovertible evidence presented and guilt established.

Making the process arbitrary creates political instability and divisiveness.

* * *

For all we know, there could be valid legal grounds to impeach certain officials, oust them after trial and then indict them in court for criminal offenses.

But how can we know this for sure when the choices for the accused official boil down to resignation or impeachment?

Admittedly, this process is simpler, faster and cheaper for taxpayers. It also allows Congress and the nation to focus on many other pressing matters.

Still, turning the impeachment process into just another exercise in political horse-trading sets a bad precedent in the application of this powerful tool for promoting good governance.

In fairness to the current Congress, this doesn’t look like the first time that “resign or be ousted through impeachment” has been proposed. There was talk about a similar deal being forged by the Aquino administration with then ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, who was impeached in March 2011 but resigned a month later, about 10 days before the Senate opened her impeachment trial.

Gutierrez, who still had about a year and a half in her term, retired in peace. She did not face charges in connection with the offenses enumerated in the articles of impeachment against her. The charges involved mainly delays or inaction of her office on complaints filed in connection with the corruption scandals during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: the broadband deal with China’s ZTE, the death of Ensign Philip Andrew Pestaño on a Navy ship, the fertilizer fund scam, the purchase of voting machines from Mega Pacific and the so-called euro generals.

Possibly encouraged by her resignation, the House impeached chief justice Renato Corona several months later. Instead of resigning, however, he decided to defend himself before the Senate impeachment court. His lead counsel Serafin Cuevas skewered the prosecution, until Corona himself faced the Senate and admitted failing to declare his dollar account in his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.

The omission, which sealed his ouster, is now also being raised against Bautista by no less than his estranged wife, and against Sereno, who will surely be impeached.

* * *

Considering our recent history, President Duterte himself should be concerned about the use of impeachment.

He himself is an impeachable official, and he knows loyalties in Congress can shift overnight. Arroyo proved adept at inoculating herself every year against impeachment. But political survival comes at a cost, especially if a president suffers from abysmal survey ratings.

Duterte, with his still enormous popularity, need not worry about paying a steep price for avoiding impeachment. When it comes to ratings, however, the typical direction in the course of a presidency is downward.

The hugely popular Joseph Estrada saw his net satisfaction rating plummet to a dismal nine percent (44 percent satisfied, 35 percent dissatisfied), down from the net 19 percent in the previous quarter, in the SWS survey released on Dec. 22, 2000 and taken around the time that he was impeached.

Erap had started with a satisfaction rating of 69 percent in the SWS poll, with only nine percent dissatisfied, in his first three months as president, even improving to 78 percent satisfied (but with 12 percent dissatisfied) in the second quarter of 1999.

In less than two years, he was out of office, although not because of his impeachment trial but through people power.

Impeachment can be useful especially in our culture where people think public office is a sure ticket to wealth and entitlements. But impeachment cannot be wielded like a bludgeon. Each time this tool for governance is used, it must make the process stronger.

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