The power to impeach
Nothing major happens in the House of Representatives without the say-so of the speaker of the chamber—whoever the speaker is, and whichever period in history we are looking at. This is a truism that predates Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez’s first term, and it will continue to be true under his successors. There is one lone historical exception, but that incident actually proves the rule: One-third of the membership of the House sought to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide in 2003, but Speaker Jose de Venecia, who was not involved in the political maneuver, stopped it by working at great speed with the Senate leadership to immediately adjourn both chambers of Congress. That counter-maneuver helped pave the way for a landmark Supreme Court case.
Wednesday’s vote to impeach Commission on Elections Chair Andres Bautista was held in the session hall, but the decision to proceed with the impeachment must have been made in the Speaker’s office. This is not an imputation of guilt, but rather a necessary inference of responsibility: Nothing major happens in the House without the say-so of the speaker. Under a forceful, straight-talking leader like Alvarez, who famously removed former president Gloria Arroyo from her position as deputy speaker when she voted against the death penalty bill he championed, and who turned Rep. Geraldine Roman from a progressive icon to just another face of traditional politics when she voted for capital punishment under pressure from the Speaker’s office, it is inconceivable that something as historically important as the impeachment of the government’s chief election officer could have happened without getting the green light from Alvarez.
Indeed, the Speaker gave an expansive radio interview shortly after 137 members of the House, more than the one-third required, voted to impeach Bautista. (A total of 75 voted no, and two abstained.) “Maybe he (Bautista) heard that he would lose in the plenary vote, so he preempted it through resignation,” Alvarez said in a mix of Filipino and English. “But he made it [effective] by the end of the year, maybe to convince us not to proceed with the deliberation in plenary.” Then Alvarez added: “You know, if his resignation was effective immediately, we would have no one to impeach…. But since he’s still a sitting chairman in the Comelec, we can impeach him. Although that does not prevent him from resigning today, tonight, tomorrow para wala nang (so that there would be no) impeachment trial.”
This statement is not a mere belaboring of the obvious (if an impeachable official’s resignation is effective immediately, there would be no need to impeach him), but a revealing glimpse into the decision-making behind the impeachment vote.
In the first place, the chambers of Congress adjourn this week. Session will resume on Nov. 13, and then the legislature will adjourn again on Dec. 15. In other words, the House can forward the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate only on Nov. 13, at the earliest, and the Senate can serve as an impeachment court only for two weeks before it adjourns for the Christmas season. And then Bautista’s resignation takes effect on Dec. 31. How can the Senate conduct and complete an impeachment trial in a mere two weeks? In other words, the legislative calendar alone belies the notion that an impeachment trial is still possible before the resignation takes effect.
Secondly, the impeachment complaint against Bautista was deemed insufficient in form by the House justice committee; Wednesday’s plenary vote was actually to confirm the committee’s finding. Whether one believes the widely circulated idea that the committee vote was reached to offer Bautista a graceful exit, in exchange for vacating a crucial government position, the House should have referred the matter back to the committee when the plenary voted to reject the committee finding. We share the view of Rep. Edcel Lagman, who has figured prominently in other impeachment battles in the House.
Last, but certainly not least: The operative phrase is “we can impeach him.” This is not so much about possibility as power. “We have the power to impeach him.” Or her. This is the real message, and it is not aimed at Bautista, but rather at two objects of the Duterte administration’s enmity: Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, who face impeachment threats of their own.
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