The Long View: Wrong kind of addition

Wrong kind of addition
By Manuel L. Quezon III

To become Senate president, a senator needs 13 votes. Edgardo Angara, Joker Arroyo, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Juan Ponce Enrile, Pia Cayetano, Manuel Lapid, Ramon Revilla Jr. and Richard Gordon, all of whom compose the administration contingent in the Senate, lack the number to elect one of their own to head the chamber.

Manuel Villar Jr., Jose Estrada, Alan Peter Cayetano, Francis Escudero, Panfilo Lacson, Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Ma. Ana Consuelo Madrigal, Manuel Roxas II, Rodolfo Biazon, Benigno Aquino III, Loren Legarda and Antonio Trillanes IV have nearly enough to elect a Senate president.

Two more senators, Gregorio Honasan and Francis Pangilinan, were elected as independents, and are, therefore, free agents. Were only one of them to vote with the opposition bloc, it could handily - and single-handedly - choose the next Senate president.

If Aquilino Pimentel III finally makes it to the Senate, the opposition would automatically have a bloc of 13 senators; if Miguel Zubiri makes it, the administration bloc would count 9 senators. However, if neither ends up proclaimed by the time the new Congress convenes, the clincher would still be the two new senators elected as independents.

At the time most of the newly elected senators were proclaimed, Sen. Sergio Osmeña III said the opposition contingent in the Senate was actually as many as 15. His count went like this: 8 GO senators (including Pimentel the Younger) plus incumbents Roxas, Madrigal, Pimentel the Elder, Estrada, Pangilinan and Cayetano the Sister. Based on that calculation, the opposition block could easily elect a Senate president and freeze out the administration when it comes to the major committees.

But as an American coach liked to say, “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” And it ain’t gonna be Christmas in July for the opposition bloc. The opposition has put forward two candidates to head the chamber: Villar and Pimentel the Elder. Both are qualified. And yet it seems that both lack the number required to become the next Senate president. That is, if one only talks of opposition bloc votes.

So the temptation is there for someone aspiring to the Senate presidency to “reach out” to the administration bloc, to get the votes required to put him over the top. As the minority, the administration bloc can circle its wagons, and promise to vote as a bloc – a cool eight votes (with a bonus of one additional vote, because no one expects Honasan to think, much less vote, independently of Enrile), requiring a candidate for the Senate presidency to find only four more votes to get the job.

To be sure, lots of excuses could be found to smash the opposition bloc, before it has a chance to solidify, but there is one reason none of these reasons should fly and why the opposition bloc (with or without Cayetano the Sister) should salvage a deteriorating situation, and settle the question of the Senate presidency among themselves. That reason is: the mandate conferred on the newly elected senators in this election.

Only two – or at most, three - of the administration Senate slate survived the May election. Opposition and independent candidates won on the basis of keeping the Palace at arm’s length, or on the public’s expectation that they would keep the President and her people under tight scrutiny for the remainder of her term. A vote of confidence in the Senate as a chamber that represents check and balance was cast; a line in the sand was drawn by both sides, and the public overwhelmingly supported those who stood for election in defiance of the administration.

The bloc that gets to elect the next Senate president is the bloc that becomes the new majority, and which therefore ends up chairing the committees that matter - and which can make life miserable for executive officials (and that includes the Chief Executive) who may still have mischief in their minds. The bloc that loses gets to be the new minority, which will have automatic representation in all committees but which won’t get to set the agendas.

A Senate president who gets elected with the help of the administration bloc will have to farm out committee chairmanships to opposition and administration senators purely on the basis of how important their votes were in getting him elected.

Think of it this way: Senator Santiago badly wants to be chair of the foreign relations committee. If the administration bloc takes part in the successful selection of the next Senate president, then part of the division of chairmanships that results will include Santiago getting the committee she wants. The very same Senator Santiago who has been accompanying the President in her foreign travels! This will send the signal to the world that the Senate endorses the very thing for which President Arroyo has been taken to task during her travels abroad: her dismal human rights record.

In May, the public chose between the administration and the opposition. In July, the senators will have to decide whether they will break faith with the electorate, or stand by the mandate they were given. The oppositionist of today, were he or she to join forces with the administration bloc to choose the next Senate president, would be a member of the new majority of tomorrow, but would no longer be an oppositionist.

Eye on the prize! Elect a leader purely on the basis of your own number, and without compromising with the administration. Don’t squander your historic duty to mount a sturdy defense of the chamber and democracy, as demanded by the people.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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