FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Earlier this week, Trump adviser Peter Navarro finally stepped into jail. The arduous process leading to this event might educate us about the separation of powers.

Navarro was cited in contempt by the now defunct US congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 riot in Washington DC. Navarro refused to testify before the committee. A case of contempt was subsequently filed against him.

That case became the subject of intense court proceedings. Navarro pitted his constitutional rights claims against the public interest claims of the US Congress. After many months and years, he was sentenced to serve time in jail.

Things are done quite differently in the US, obviously. American legislators cannot, by themselves, cite a citizen for contempt. They have to argue their case through a disciplined judicial process.

In our case, any legislator may act as judge, jury and executioner in the case of resource persons refusing to testify or failing to say what legislators want to hear. On the say-so of legislators, anyone could be detained indefinitely and without recourse to judicial relief. We probably have the only legislature in the world equipped with detention facilities.

Over the past week, spokesmen for the House of Representatives and the Senate seemed to be in a contest over which chamber had the more comfortable detention facilities. There was something perverse in that.

We have all witnessed how congressional hearings work. Witnesses are badgered, threatened and cajoled – all in aid of grandstanding. Once, a few months ago, a self-effacing businessman with the habit of resting his eyes while listening intently to the proceedings was publicly embarrassed by a crude legislator who claimed the resource person was sleeping during his hearing. Just the other day, that same legislator imperiously stormed out of a hearing because the witnesses were not saying what he wanted to hear.

Those who have had the misfortune of being summoned to a congressional hearing know how much the proceedings resemble a medieval trial by ordeal. The witnesses are treated brusquely, harangued in aid of television face time and verbally abused in aid of someone else’s reelection.

There is always showmanship in abundance during these hearings. The legislators pretend to be better than career prosecutors even if it is obvious they come to meetings utterly unprepared and use the chamber’s time to launch fishing expeditions.    

In the US, enough new rules and procedures have been introduced over the past decades to tame congressional hearings after the ruinous McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts conducted by this bigoted Committee on Un-American Activities. The new rules and procedures help ensure that public hearings are in aid of legislation.

The Congress, after all, is not a law enforcement agency. It is not an investigative unit. Legislators may only recommend cases be filed.

Now we have another opportunity to possibly reform the hearings procedures at both chambers of our Congress. An arrest warrant has been issued against Apollo Quiboloy and his lawyers have said they will bring this matter up to the Supreme Court. There is a chance congressional abuse might finally end.

 The issuance of an arrest warrant for Quiboloy to submit himself to unbridled heckling in the guise of a hearing presented Senate President Miguel Zubiri with a particularly delicate challenge.

It was clear Zubiri did not want to be so easily dragged in as an accomplice to what would surely degenerate into an obscene circus. Some senators were hellbent on having that circus happen, even if cases have already been filed in separate courts. Other senators tried to block the move, although the minority could not muster the numbers.

Zubiri has a well-deserved reputation as a consensus-builder. He allowed enough time for those opposing the issuance of an arrest order to gather the signatures they needed. The chamber, to be sure, needed some rescuing from its own proclivities.

Citing earlier guidance from the Supreme Court, Zubiri hoped to restrain the appetite of some of his colleagues for perverse entertainment by first issuing Quiboloy a show-cause order. Since the self-designated pastor did not respond, the Senate President had no choice but to sign the arrest warrant demanded by some of his colleagues.

The task had become entirely ministerial for the leader of the chamber. This was, after all, a collegial body. If some senators wanted to indulge in publicly humiliating the leader of a religious sect, nothing would stop them from doing so.

This hearing will be a spectacle, no doubt, although it will bring no new facts to light that a disciplined court proceeding could pretty well accomplish. It should not even pretend to substitute for a proper prosecution.

 If Quiboloy is eventually arrested and forcibly dragged to a public hearing, the event will no doubt be a blockbuster. This will be engineered for high drama, crying witnesses and all. He will be coerced to face his accusers in a kangaroo court – without the strict presumption of innocence guaranteed in a proper courtroom.

That event will surely produce the sort of political pornography some legislators crave for. It will bring politicians all the television face-time they want as they perform self-righteously. Along with the impending cancellation of the franchise for Quiboloy’s media outfit, this event will subliminally magnify the powers of the legislative branch.

But, in the end, all these will be “sound and fury signifying nothing,” pronouncing guilt by public acclaim. This cheap spectacle will leave a bad taste in the mouth.

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