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Commentary

Weakened Senate leadership

/ 05:12 AM January 13, 2018

For the first time in the Philippines’ legislative history, the leader of the House of Representatives has publicly criticized the Senate for its inaction on certain bills passed by the House.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez called the Senate “mabagal na kapulungan” (slow congress) because of its alleged slow action on important national legislation. In particular, he cited its failure to pass the bill earlier approved by the House restoring the death penalty on certain crimes.

In response to this criticism, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III said the Senate always believed in “quality over quantity” in its deliberations on and approval of legislative measures.

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Alvarez’s broadside against the Senate runs counter to the tradition dictating that the two chambers desist from criticizing each other in the performance of their work.

What raised many eyebrows over this incident is the fact that Alvarez and Pimentel are both officials of the ruling PDP-Laban which has President Duterte as its titular head. In the PDP-Laban hierarchy, Pimentel, who is party president, is higher in rank than Alvarez, who is secretary general.

When Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon called on Pimentel to make a more vigorous defense of the chamber, the latter said his earlier “quality vs. quantity” statement was sufficient and that he did not want to engage in further verbal tussles with his party mate.

The unprecedented criticism of the Senate and Pimentel’s tepid response to it speak volumes about the drop in the esteem and prestige that the chamber enjoyed before Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law on the Philippines and shortly after the country’s return to democracy in 1986.

It used to be that the Senate was, as described by the media, the “training ground of presidents.” The description was well-deserved because many of the senators elected then were legal luminaries or politicians with sterling credentials in business or public service. And because they were elected at large, they could rightfully claim a national constituency.

Thus, although the two chambers are coequal, senators then enjoyed a certain level of moral ascendancy over members of the House, and were viewed as the latter’s “big brothers.”

Not anymore. The time-honored practice of interparliamentary courtesy has failed to deter some House members from calling down the senators on issues over which they disagree. During the bicameral conference committee meeting on the 2018 budget, for instance, Alvarez claimed that the senators have no business changing the House-approved appropriation because under the Constitution, all revenue measures, including the budget, emanate exclusively from the House.

The Senate has only itself to blame for the erosion of respect from the House. When senators insult or call each other unflattering names in committee hearings and sessions, and sometimes almost come to blows, the House members cannot be blamed for viewing them in a bad light.

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This is not to say that the House members are “angels.” But at least they are able to keep their differences private and do not behave like spoiled brats who resolve conflicts with their fists.

The civility and intellectual exchange of ideas in the Senate are now things of the past. But that should not come as a surprise because popularity and ability to spend, rather than academic qualifications and public service experience, have become the criteria for election to the chamber.

Under normal circumstances, a party’s second in command refrains, as a measure of respect, from saying or doing anything that would embarrass or undermine the standing of the party president. By criticizing the leader of his party, Alvarez may be sending the message to the party’s rank and file that he is on equal footing with, if not politically superior to, Pimentel.

Too bad that the Senate has, in the process, become collateral damage.

Raul J. Palabrica (rpalabrica@inquirer.com.ph) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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