The Long View: A unicameralist on bicameralism

Philippine Daily Inquirer | May 11, 2006 |

A unicameralist on bicameralism

by Manuel L. Quezon III

JOSE RIZAL ONCE WROTE, WE MUST COME to our elders for advice. They have seen much and studied more; our years are few and our knowledge scant beside their experience.

The late Jose E. Romero, a former congressman, House majority floor leader, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, sugar lobbyist, secretary of education, lawyer and ambassador, wrote an autobiography entitled, Not So Long Ago. Every time I read it, I learn something new, and I am reminded of a basic truth that not every politician is a bad person. Romeros account of his life is honest, and illustrates that what we see today had its origins yesterday, and that even at the time, people saw clearly what was at stake. Todays politicians want to bring us backwards, forwards, sideways, with a mixed bag of changes that hark back to all the previous stages of our past. They have no creativity.

I’ve heard proposals to restore the system of electing senators by district, the way senators were elected under the Jones Law (1916-1935). This idea is, of course, a distraction since what the House really wants is to eliminate the Senate altogether. This happened in 1935, during the framing of the Constitution, but this time, the senators arent in the mood to have their jobs legislated (or amended) out of existence.

Romero dealt with the issue of senatorial districts in his reminiscences about the role he played in the Constitutional Convention. He wrote, “I was greatly interested in the adoption of the unicameral system of legislature. There was general dissatisfaction with the system of electing senators from the then senatorial districts. Provinces which had very little in common had been lumped together into districts, and there was sometimes an imbalance of resources, making one province dominant over the others. Such was the case of my own senatorial district. My province of Negros Oriental was lumped together with Negros Occidental, distant Antique and still more distant Palawan. It seems as if the district was a hodgepodge of remnants of what could not be taken into other districts. While we were on the same island as Negros Occidental, we were separated by a high mountain ridge, so that the two provinces did not speak the same vernacular. On the other hand, we were separated by water but were closer and had more contacts with Cebu, Bohol and Northern Mindanao than we had with Negros Occidental, and we spoke the same language. Also, Negros Occidental, being the premier sugar province, was so much richer than ours that candidates from our sister province always had much more money to spend in election campaigns and thereby could practically dominate our province politically … If we had little in common with Negros Occidental, we had very much less in common with Antique and Palawan.”

Of course, his dissatisfaction with the way provinces were lumped together wouldn’t hold water anymore. In drawing up the country’s different regions, Marcos solved that problem. Romeros old senatorial district would be replaced today by Region 7, composed of Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental and Siquijor. He’d probably be happier with this arrangement.

But Romero made other observations about the old system of electing senators at large.

“Senator Briones and Representative [Manuel] Roxas were really in favor of a bicameral legislature with a Senate elected at large, but their strategy was to join the unicameralists in the attack on the then-existing system of electing senators by districts and then afterward to persuade the unicameralists to join them in a movement for a Senate elected at large. Thus, when deliberations on that part of the Constitution dealing with the legislature was about to close after one month of debate, they made their approach to me as the designated leader of the unicameralists group and made their proposal. I told them that much as I disliked the system of electing senators by district, the system of electing senators at large would be worse. They argued that senators elected at large would be elder statesmen. I told them the senators elected at large would really be only the creatures of the leaders of the parties.”

Romero said his misgivings were later proven to be valid. “I was to see an example a quarter of a century later of the truth of my contention when at the Nacionalista convention of 1961, after having been selected by the Executive Committee of the Nacionalista Party as one of the official candidates, Senate President [Amang] Rodriguez insisted on my being replaced by an incumbent senator as a condition for his rapprochement with President [Carlos P.] Garcia, with whom he had been estranged.”

But he went on to observe that in retrospect (he wrote his memoirs near the end of his life, and died before he could finish them), “maybe the new system had something going for it: As I have already stated, I was myself an example of the truth of my statement that the senators elected at large would … not necessarily be the elder statesmen of the country that the proponents expected them to be. But although myself a victim of the system, I can still say that experience has shown there is a good deal to commend the system. Because of the millions of electors involved, as a general rule the better candidates are elected. The influence of money is not decisive in elections at large, whereas if the electorate involved is much smaller, this limited number could more easily be reached by such unwholesome influences as money, personal relations, or even force. In general, the better candidates have better chances of winning elections at large than in local elections.”

Romeros words bear reflecting upon as the House attempts to stampede the nation back into the days of his youth.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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