Philippine Presidents and Congress

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Philippine Presidents and Congress

by Manuel L. Quezon III

When Ferdinand Marcos became president but before he made himself dictator, he perfected the juggling of congressional appropriations and the use of pork barrel funds as a means for congressional control. In short, it was a kind of judo where he used the very power of his office’s traditional opponent, against itself. In short, he was buying the politicians with their own money, if Congress may be said to own the taxes that people pay-which is pretty much how they treat them.

It got even easier when Marcos declared martial law and constituted himself as a government of one, combining the executive and legislative powers in his person, while adopting the Supreme Court as his new rubberstamp. He abolished all limits on appropriations and spending, basically giving himself the authority to spend on whatever he pleased and as much as he wanted — an authority he exercised to the hilt.

Prior to Marcos, the bisection of the Philippine Congress into an upper and lower house in 1941 only slowed but did little else to stop the growth of executive power to authoritarian dimensions. And the impetus was not a sense of senatorial duty to maintain the principle of checks and balance but personal ambition, with the Senate convinced that it was the School of Presidents where at least one graduate would be president in time.

The most logical thing of course was for the senators to conspire to enhance the office that one of them would inevitably achieve. But most senators were convinced that, while one of them would certainly be president, the rest of them perforce would not and therefore took care to keep that office within some sort of limit. And that was the only friction that the growth of presidential power experienced.

Some say that it was the country’s bad luck to have a straw man, Gil Puyat, at the helm of the Senate when martial law was declared in 1972. This is unfair to a decent individual because it was not the weakness of its titular head that paralyzed the Senate but the brazenness of the assault on democracy that froze the senators in their shoes and left them flaccid thereafter.

Although frequently outmaneuvered by the executive, an appropriate deference was always paid to the Senate. But never had the senatorial class been humiliated as it was with Marcos when he sent soldiers to simply nail its doors shut and then proceeded to arrest — not all the senators for he knew their quality or lack of it — but only two: Jose Diokno and Ninoy Aquino. It was a master psychological stroke, striking individual terror and collective insult to the rest of the chamber. The House of Representatives was simply not hear from again, though the Speaker of the House, Jose Laurel, went home to pack his bags in readiness to be taken away to detention. No one came for him. Another masterstroke.

Marcos then proceeded to threaten though mostly to cajole and corrupt the members of a sitting constitutional convention into drafting a new constitution that he had already written down and which imparted to him absolute power while granting to the legislature the handsomest perks for offices stripped of any real role in political life.

He promised that those who voted for the Palace-dictated constitution would be automatic members of the legislature it created in caricature. Yet, when the vast majority did just that, he abolished it with the most expressive show of contempt and called for elections to a new but still rubberstamp parliament.

Essentially Marcos wiped the floor with Congress, using it as a dishrag while he took upon himself the serious work of lawmaking, particularly for his, his wife’s and their cronies’ benefit. To this day, the republic’s finances continue to be compromised by the obligation to repay what they stole and wasted.

That left only the Supreme Court as the lone self-respecting institution separate from an executive with no sense of limits or of shame.

Although described by one US authority as “the least dangerous branch,” because it cannot act on its own initiative nor does it the physical power to effect change, the highest court can stop the other two branches dead in their legitimate tracks if it chose. They could ignore the court, of course, but they would proceed thenceforth with little or no legitimacy — and legitimacy is what government is all about.

In the world’s most populous democracy, a chief executive had declared emergency government and given herself extraordinary powers — in effect, martial law — but the Indian Supreme Court ruled, in a decision dripping with legal erudition, that it was unconstitutional. Indira Gandhi backed off and restored democracy.

The Philippine Supreme Court did the opposite. It could have, at the very least, refused to rule on the issue of martial law, on the basis of the specious adage that when the guns speak, the laws fall silent — which was true but did not absolve the court from doing its duty to issue a ruling. Instead, it went a step further and validated martial law. And it would do so repeatedly so that, as one jurist put it, martial law was erected stone by stone by the decisions of a craven Supreme Court. Marcos declared martial law but it was the Court that said it was right.

There had been signs that the court would rule in that fashion, not least its complete lack of fortitude in upholding the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus after the Plaza Miranda bombing of which he was, at the time, believed to be the author. Like the proverbial first kiss on a first date, which has been compared to the first olive out of a tight bottle, once gotten, the rest follow first with increasing ease and then with total abandon.

Congress never recovered from the humiliation of its complete dissolution. To be sure, it redeemed itself, at least in appearance, in 1987 and again in 1989, when it convened to condemn a military coup still in progress. The 1989 coup attempt showed every sign of succeeding until the last minute.

But no one doubts that, if a coup had succeeded, the Congress would have continued in session and legitimized the junta.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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