The Long View
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:39:00 01/27/2010
ESSENTIALLY THAT IS HOW I HAVE ALWAYS viewed the process former Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. is trying to dodge: an impeachment. Senators in many ways can do as they please while in office, with the only real check and balance on their behavior being their fellow senators themselves.
In the case of the fundamental requirement for senatorial office, a mandate conferred by the electorate, the Senate itself retains primary jurisdiction through the Senate Electoral Tribunal. There senators can indeed exercise the tyranny of numbers, or they can go against political self-interest by demanding fair treatment even for opponents.
There was the case of Sen. Alejo Mabanag who then belonged to the minority Democrata. He was elected senator for the second senatorial district in 1922, but an electoral protest was filed. The Senate Electoral Tribunal, operating purely on the basis of the Nacionalista majority (at the time, justices didn’t sit in electoral tribunals as a foil to the majority), was poised to expel him. Senate President Quezon, then in the midst of a severe bout of tuberculosis, had himself brought to the Senate in a stretcher to demand justice for a political opponent. It’s no surprise that subsequently, Mabanag became a loyal Nacionalista, serving in the postwar Senate.
Even when Nacionalista Senators Ramon Diokno, Jose Vera and Jose Romero were denied their seats by the Liberals in 1946, the Senate had jurisdiction first, and only afterwards did they appeal their case to the Supreme Court, which reinstated them. But they didn’t deny the jurisdiction of the Senate just as the Senate accepted the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
In the Senate, its members can make speeches without fear of reprisal, on the hard-won legislative principle that an elected representative must be accorded every opportunity to act as the advocate of public causes. The only real limit on the kind of rhetorical impunity this privilege confers is that other senators may challenge one of their own, either by means of interpolations, or speeches of their own, or move for their colleague to be investigated and judged by what is essentially a jury of their peers.
It is the same logic that puts the fate of an impeached president in the hands of a jury composed of the only real peers of the chief executive: senators elected by the same national constituency. In the case of a president’s impeachment, the only real check and balance on the Senate is that the whole thing plays out in full public view, where partisanship can be pursued, but at the risk of being punished by the electorate in the next election.
The fundamentally political aspect of all this is freely allowed to play out because what is at stake, whether for a president being prosecuted by the House and upon whom the Senate is tasked to sit in judgment, or a congressman or senator haled before a committee to investigate allegations of unethical behavior, is public office. Public office is not an inalienable right; an office obtained by political means can be lost by political means, so long as the rules are observed in gaining or losing that office.
It is not as if life, liberty, or even property is at stake. There is no risk of the hangman’s noose or a firing squad, no automatic guarantee of imprisonment because only the courts can do that, and no risk of personal property being seized because no legislature can take that away.
Ninoy Aquino declined to participate in the proceedings of the military tribunal tasked with convicting him for rebellion, on the principle that as a civilian, he could only be judged by a civilian court. His life was at stake and in the hands of the wrong tribunal.
Villar, on the other hand, stands accused before the proper institution, the one to which he belongs, and which, institutionally, has a long tradition of insisting that it is the only body that has primary jurisdiction to determine the fitness for membership of one of its own – or what inferior sanctions ought to be imposed, short of expulsion.
The Constitution decrees that to lose office requires overwhelming numbers: a two-thirds majority to impeach a president or expel a member of Congress from either chamber. That is the equivalent of the courts requiring proof beyond reasonable doubt for conviction.
For a president, the absence of a two-thirds majority to convict means the failure of an impeachment. For a legislator, the maximum penalty of expulsion requires a similar majority and anything less means, at worst, a slap on the wrist. Which is not to say that something like censure, and a recommendation that charges be filed and ill-gotten profits returned, doesn’t hurt. For Villar the prospect of all these obviously does.
Not only would the findings of the Senate, in its capacity as a committee of the whole, provide ammunition for his critics, it might establish a precedent for future inquiries should he be elected to the presidency. That being the case, how he conducts himself now, as a senator facing scrutiny by his peers, is a clear indication of how he will conduct himself if the day ever comes when he has to face scrutiny by the same institution – this time in his capacity as chief executive.
I have mentioned how President Elpidio Quirino, the first chief executive to undergo impeachment proceedings, responded by vigorously facing the charges, opening up public records for scrutiny, and how the rules at the time fostered the proper investigation of the allegations. We have seen how President Joseph Estrada, after losing control of the House, attempted a vigorous defense. We know how President Macapagal-Arroyo engineered avoiding scrutiny by means of the rules and by denying, every step of the way, the legitimacy of any effort to hold her to account. Without even being president, Villar has embarked on an identical, and ominous, path.