The perils of derailment

MOST of the time, congress operates in the shadows. By this I mean that the general public, while it funds congress and elects its members, goes about its business in blissful ignorance of how and what congress does. There are times, however, when congress and its workings are subjected to the scrutiny of the public. When this happens, it is good. For a democracy worth its salt involves the public in that often frustrating, and certainly time consuming task, of wrestling with the difficulties of understanding legislative processes and scrutinizing congressional debate.

The turbulent, nerve-wracking first days of congress’s efforts to begin the canvassing of votes for the presidency and vice presidency, is such a time. Once more tv and radio, the magazines and the papers, have devoted a significant portion of their energies to the workings of Congress. Our general experience with joint sessions is ceremonial, such as when congress assembles to listen to the president deliver the state of the nation address. Hardly ever do we get to see both chambers working together under the same roof, its session presided over by two officers. In recent days we have seen how unwieldy this can be, but also, how marvelous at times it can become.

To see senators debate with congressmen, and vice versa, is to see the best –and sometimes the worst- minds of both chambers dealing with each others as peers. Which is what they are: all members of two co-equal chambers. To see questions of constitutional import, and political significance, debated in this manner allows the public to gauge the quality of the composition of both chambers. To listen to their interpolations is to receive a crash course in the law, in history, in politics and parliamentary procedure. A representative of the party list Sanlakas, who early on demanded that the joint session be broadcast non stop to the public, was on the right track. After all, rare is the time when the public gets the chance to be observers in such crucial efforts.

If the public is often confused, and quite regularly confounded, by the terms and strategies involved in legislative practice, it only proves how lacking we are, as a people, in an appreciation of how our democracy functions. Democracy goes beyond elections; it involves the tiring, even tiresome, day in and day out working of the people’s tribunes –their elected represented, whether chosen nationally for the senate, or locally for the house of representatives.

At stake is the constitutional obligation for congress, in joint session, to canvass the votes for president and vice president, with the objective of proclaiming, in the name of the Filipino people, the individuals who will be president and vice president for the next six years. The question confronting congress in the first days of its joint session, was whether it would delegate its responsibilities to a joint committee, or fulfill its duties in plenary, that is, as a whole. Both sides have come up with convincing reasons in support of their respective positions. But what is important is not the eventual outcome of that debate, but the debate itself.

Our congress suffers from having a disreputable standing in the eyes of the very public that elects it. In truth, congress often deserves the reputation it has. But in times such as these, it has the capacity to startle onlookers by reminding them that its members often comprise the best and brightest among our people in public life. The arguments for a joint committee, defended by Rep. Nachura and Senators Arroyo and Pangilinan, have been presented with sincerity and clarity; as have the arguments against such a committee, propounded by Senators Pimentel and Rep. Locsin. There are times when the passions of people such as Rep. Dinangalen can anger or amuse –but even then, how else could the public find out, as Dinangalen pointed out in a moment of pique, that he at least has a perfect attendance record and has never gone on a congressional junket?

The fact is that the reason our legislature has debates, and interpolations, sponsorship speeches and the whole rigmarole of parliamentary procedure, is that unless one wants a rubber stamp assembly or a dictatorship, the only means by which a national endeavor can be achieved is through a national consensus. There is no other way to get something done without alienating so many people that a national activity becomes an impossibility.

As long as achieving a consensus on how to canvass the presidential vote might take, the fact is that eventually a consensus will be reached. And from that consensus comes the credibility that the proclamation of the next president so sorely needs.

People often forget that senators and congressmen are representatives; that they, in their individual capacities and collectively as two chambers composing a congress, have been given powers and responsibilities to act on behalf of the people. They are doing their work, as they see it fit to do their work, because that work is theirs, and no one elses, to do. It is a marvelous thing, really, to see democracy –or representative democracy, as we have it- in action.

It would be better, of course, if more people made an effort to go to congress and watch for themselves, how things are done. It would be best of all if government devoted some of its propaganda resources to providing the public with continuous coverage of the proceedings of congress. Not just at times such as these, but all throughout the legislative year. It would afford those interested in the work of their representatives, to keep track of how their representatives are doing. It would subject the often mysterious workings of both chambers to the steady light of public scrutiny.

Perhaps this is what we need, and the lesson best derived from the past few days. And the coming days or even weeks. A steady demystifying of the workings of congress. A democracy should never fear the attentions of the public. A government should never be alarmed by slowing important work to a crawl –as long as the work is done. There are enough trite sayings about haste making waste. And we cannot afford to waste the chance for this otherwise messy and frustrating election to be redeemed.

We must hope that redemption will come. That out of the joint session an incontrovertible mandate arises. The mandate may be large, or it may be small. But a mandate nonetheless. For that mandate to emerge will be for us to witness yet another triumph of democracy. Or a case of our representatives rescuing our democracy from its tendency to self destruct.

Faith is what we sorely need. Not just in the outcome, but in the process. The fight today is for the process to endure; and for us to realize that democracy goes beyond elections. It is not about particular names, but in the institutions that we have put in place, and expect our representatives to keep in place, as working instruments in the machinery of democracy.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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