A shrewdness of apes and a barrel of monkeys

A shrewdness of apes and a barrel of monkeys

There has to be a better way to mount congressional investigations.

( If you give enough monkeys enough typewriters, one of them will sooner or later crank out Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This sort of reasoning seems to be behind Congressional hearings in the Senate and the House: with enough poking, jabbering, and grimacing, a shrewdness of apes or a barrel of monkeys will produce something sensible after all manure flung around is scraped away from the walls.

No it won’t. The only result will be what we have: everyone ends up covered in excrement and thank God neither TV nor the Internet have developed Smell-o-rama.

In the Senate, you had chest-thumping and the baring of fangs.

But I wouldn’t go as far as those whose response to the Congress going apeshit is to shriek that legislators ought to stop investigations and leave the determination of innocence or guilt when it comes to misdeeds, to the courts. You may not like the monkeys but there’s no need to be a monkey’s uncle.

Our government is not only democratic—we all have a part to play and we, the people (as the Americans once expressed it), provide the mandates without which every official would merely be an impostor wielding usurped power—it is also representative (we delegate legislative matters to senators and congressmen, for example) and republican (“a country that is governed by elected representatives and by an elected leader (such as a president) rather than by a king or queen,” as the handy-dandy dictionary would have it).

That being the case, congressional investigations serve a purpose and that purpose can redound to the public good. To be sure, it will tend to become political theater, and it can make reputations—Richard Nixon milked the hearings of suspected Soviet spy Alger Hiss for all it was worth, though he did hire an investigator, Robert E. Stripling; so did John F. Kennedy, who had as his counsel, his brother, Robert F. Kennedy as they went after Teamster Boss Jimmy Hoffa. The brothers’ inquisition of mafia bosses continued into the Kennedy administration. But hearings are the kind of political theater where no one really knows what the ending will be. Even the most inquisitorial of Grand Inquisitors, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, went after a suspect too far, when he started going after the U.S. Army and famously got the response, “Senator, have you no sense of decency?” He never recovered. And of course the Watergate hearings are a classic case of partisanship collapsing under the weight of evidence of official wrongdoing.

In the United States, congressional inquiries are justified on several grounds. First, because Congress has the power of the purse—it enacts the budget. Second, because it has the power to organize the executive branch—it creates departments and agencies and can abolish, fund, defund, or reassign them. Third, it enacts all the laws according to the powers granted to the legislature by the Constitution, regulating the armed forces, commerce, education, and many other things. Fourth, Congress confirms executive appointments, which means not just approving nominations, but looking into the policies and programs of the government of the day. Fifth, it has the power of investigation and inquiry, which is how it exercises oversight—in our country, this is expressed as “investigations in aid of legislation.” And finally, Congress has the power of impeachment and removal, “a powerful, ultimate oversight tool to investigate alleged executive and judicial misbehavior.”

In 1885, Woodrow Wilson, who knew a thing or two about what congresses do and how government functions, wrote: “Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration…even more important than legislation is the instruction and guidance in political affairs which the people might receive from a body which kept all national concerns suffused in a broad daylight of discussion…It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents…The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.” Harry S. Truman, who made his name in part by the investigations into wartime waste of funds, observed that “The power of investigation is one of the most important powers of Congress.” But, he added, “The manner in which that power is exercised will largely determine the position and prestige of Congress in the future.”

Say what you will, if some believe Sen. Leila de Lima did not handle the hearings on the murders going on in a proper manner, the answer certainly isn’t what the Senate ended up doing: by ousting her from the committee chairmanship it turned itself into a circular firing squad. And when the House turned the Secretary of Justice into an honorary member it not only confessed to incompetence within its ranks, it opened itself up to participating in an awkward threesome as the main action took place between Aguirre and his pet witness, Magleo. When Herbert Colanggo told Sec. Aguirre that he’d spoken to Leila de Lima on the phone, and then read out the number, Aguirre “quickly corrected Colanggo, asking him if he was sure about the last four digits of the cell phone number”—getting a quickly-corrected response.

To be sure, even from the steaming pile of manure shoveled by both chambers we can pick up an informative thing or two. Some have tried, quite painstakingly, to eke out consistencies in Matobato’s testimony; journalist Ellen Tordesillas was able to zero in, and give context to, the claim of a mayor-sanctioned rubout of the bodyguards of one of the mayor’s perennial rivals, Prospero Nograles (for more on this rivalry see my 2009 column, Vendettas). Sen. Pangilinan was able to defend, and at the same time promote, his wife’s past and forthcoming concerts.

The point is: there has to be a better way to mount congressional investigations. But first, as Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino pointed out in a blistering op-ed, “Let Matobato continue testifying. Let all the [extra-judicial killing] witnesses continue to take the stand. If any is lying, it will not be long before the lie is brought to light for what it is. But if any has spoken the truth, then we shall have done ourselves a tremendous disservice—and an unspeakable injustice—by silencing him.” By all means, even though I continue to think zeroing in on de Lima in the House is improper, investigating the shenanigans in the New Bilibid Prison can have a purpose too: so long, as the peppery Fr. Aquino puts it, as the DOJ considers that “If Magleo is typical of the witnesses that Aguirre intends to present, I strongly suggest the services of a more competent script-writer.”

What could be done better? It boils down to discipline: doing research, knowing the rules, and parking one’s ego. If senators and congressmen set aside their grandstanding in favor of more disciplined proceedings, more facts might emerge, and more sense could characterize the hearings. As one legal observer put it (again referring to the United States), in other jurisdictions, lawmakers hire lawyers to do the questioning, and do what they’re supposed to do—listen, first, and then submit their questions to the committee’s counsel to ask. Imagine that. Only then would they ask further questions, having controlled themselves for much of the proceedings. Imagine that. Oh, and stop serving snacks during hearings. Hunger might help put order into chaos.

As it was, last Tuesday, you had congressmen blundering about, so much so that after a while they had to rescue themselves. Rep. Gatchalian got upset with the testimony and had to insist everything is peachy-keen in his district. A former administrator of one of our ports in the DOJ side had to point out drugs were distributed outside the premises of his port; and Rep. Umali had to plead, let’s limit things to Bilibid. Because you never know—people say the darndest things.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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