Three months after the 30th anniversary of the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, the democratic consensus that Charter represented has come to an end. The final rites were pronounced by Congress this week, when the House announced on Monday it would merely convene as a Committee of the Whole to sit in executive session for a briefing on martial law. And yesterday, 15 senators excreted a sense of the Senate resolution surrendering their even limited ability to influence events by saying they supported martial law. A far cry from the Senate of 2009 which passed a resolution critical of martial law.
No one expects anything but parochial subservience from members of the House. But senators are expected to put forward a national point of view and scrutinize executive actions as the only officials outside the executive who also possess national mandates. While no one reasonably expected anything but approval by Congress of martial law, it was reasonable to expect it to at least make the proclamation legally iron-clad (and lay out the case for it) or subject the decision to some kind of scrutiny—and put on record each member’s vote for or against.
Then again nothing is obvious to those who refuse to see.
In 1973, Ferdinand Marcos, bayonets at the ready, at least permitted those constitutional convention delegates he hadn’t arrested to go through the motions of a final vote on the constitution he instructed them to approve. However token the opposition, it was put on record. As was the enthusiastic approval of the delegates salivating over their vote being a ticket to a seat in the Interim Batasan Pambansa, an ambition shared by senators and congressmen who quietly approved of martial law. Having privately threatened the Supreme Court with abolition, Marcos fortified his position when the Court put its cowardice on record by meekly stepping aside and declaring the Marcos constitution in full force and effect.
The present Charter’s command that Congress convene without need of a presidential proclamation in case of a recess, and that they vote in joint session on martial law, had its origins in the post-1986 democratic consensus that no man or woman should ever have an opportunity to nullify our institutions in one fell swoop. Through an exercise of creative imagination, Congress invented reasons to excuse its dereliction of duty.
By doing so, the 17th Congress of Pantaleon Alvarez and Aquilino Pimentel III has proven itself worse than the 8th Congress of Cornelio Villareal and Gil Puyat: At least, Congress was in recess when Marcos proclaimed martial law, and its abolition before it was scheduled to reconvene in January 1973 provided the excuse that any institutional response was impossible.
But individual responses were possible. There is a reason the country will always remember Doy Laurel, Monching Mitra, Eva Estrada-Kalaw, Gerry Roxas and Jovy Salonga—they were the only senators who showed up to bear witness to their chamber being padlocked by Marcos’ military); whatever they did before or after, in 1973 they bothered to take their mandate as senators seriously when their chamber was shut down.
Similarly, there should be goodwill reserved for Senators Pangilinan, Hontiveros, Aquino, Trillanes, Drilon, De Lima, Escudero and Poe. Each may have different attitudes towards martial law but knowing well enough a joint session was required, at least did not sign (nor were even asked to, it seems).
And particular disgust should be reserved for Senators Gatchalian, Legarda, Villanueva and Ejercito who, despite announcing they were for a joint session, negated their stand as they ended up signing yesterday’s defeatist resolution; and for Zubiri and Gordon who had participated in the joint session of 2009 only to roll over this time, not least when other participants in 2009 like Edcel Lagman remained consistent in insisting that Congress ought to convene.
Four months from now, we will mark the centennial of Ferdinand Marcos’ birth. We can only assume that by then, the country will be closer to his dark vision of the office he once held, more than ever since his disgrace in 1986. Recall American senator Mike Mansfield’s famous quip, describing the Philippines as “a nation of 40 million cowards and one son of a bitch.”