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The Long View
Senate the victim of a design flaw

By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:52:00 04/10/2008

Filed Under: Government, history

Let me begin by stating that I believe our senate was designed to be a continuing body, and it?s fair for the Senate to assume it?s a continuing body. But the Senate is now a victim of the carelessness of the framers of our present Constitution. Let?s review how it came to be viewed as a continuing body.

On the second Tuesday of November 1941, we elected a Senate on a national basis for the first time.

As Marcial Lichauco explained it in his biography of Manuel Roxas, ?The Filipino electorate also abolished the National Assembly and reintroduced the bicameral system with a House of Representatives whose membership would be elected for a four-year term and a Senate with 24 senators to be elected at large throughout the country, eight of whom would come up for election every two years. Since 24 senators had to be chosen for the first Senate, however, it meant that the eight senators who received the highest number of votes would hold office for six years, the next eight would hold office for four years, and the last 8 for two years. Thus, had World War II not intervened, there would have been an election in 1943 for 8 senators. Another election should have been held in November, 1945 not only for 8 senators but also for the entire membership of the House as well as a President.? (As it turned out, no 1943 election was held and national elections only took place in May 1946.)

In that election, all 24 senators elected came from the Nacionalista Party. What?s interesting is that they comprised a fairly geographically balanced slate, representing the significant voting populations of the time. Geographical balance was also represented in presidential and vice-presidential tandems from 1935 to 1969. In 1986, both Ferdinand Marcos? and Corazon Aquino?s tickets broke with tradition, and the tradition of a North-South ticket was abandoned, it seems, for good.

Returning to the results of that first national senatorial election, there were 13 from Luzon: Melencio Arranz, Daniel Maramba, Quintin Paredes, Elpidio Quirino and Proceso Sebastian from the Ilocos; Antonio de las Alas and Claro M. Recto from Batangas; Domingo Imperial and Vicente Madrigal from Bicol; Ramon Fernandez from Manila; Nicolas Buendia from Bulacan; Eulogio Rodriguez from Rizal; and Emiliano Tria Tirona from Cavite.

From the Visayas, there were nine: Pedro Hernaez, Esteban de la Rama, Ramon Torres and Jose Yulo of Negros Occidental; Mariano Jesus Cuenco and Vicente Rama of Cebu; Carlos P. Garcia of Bohol; Manuel Roxas of Capiz; Rafael Martinez of Leyte.

From Mindanao, which was then relatively less-populated, came two: Aluyao Alonto of Lanao and Jose Ozamis of Misamis Oriental, a Muslim and a Christian, respectively.

Benigno Aquino of Tarlac was slated to be speaker of the House of Representatives.

But oddly enough, instead of basing their terms on the percentage of votes each gained, the senators decided their terms would be determined by drawing lots. For example, Jose Yulo, who came in fourth after Recto, Roxas and Paredes, and who was due to become Senate president, ended up drawing, literally, the short end of the stick. He became one of the senators who ended up with two-year terms, and so never got to sit in the Senate because of the war.

One result of electing senators on a staggered basis was the development of the mid-term election as a referendum on sitting administrations. The only national election then, midway during a president?s term, was for the Senate. If the mid-terms went to the opposition, people knew at once that the president was in bad odor with the people. This was particularly the case in 1951 (Quirino) and 1971 (Marcos), when the opposition swept the Senate, resulting in a repudiation of the incumbent matched only by the 2007 senatorial polls (see my election post-mortem for the PCIJ, ?An abnormal return to normality? at http://pcij.org/i-report/2007/2007-polls-postmortem.html).

Despite changes in constitutions, the death of the two-party system, and the changes in congressmen?s and the president?s term so they no longer coincide, the mid-term tradition is so strong it has survived and retains its potency, politically.

Another result of the staggered terms of senators was the development of the idea that the Senate, in contrast to the House, is a ?continuing body.? Retired Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban in his column disputed the Senate?s argument that in ?Nazareno vs. Arnault? (July 18, 1950), the Supreme Court stated that the Senate was a continuing body. Panganiban quoted Justice Antonio Carpio?s explanation as to why this may have been so in the past but no longer applies. ?Carpio,? wrote Panganiban, ?cogently observes that ?Nazareno? was decided under the 1935 Constitution when only eight of the 24 senators were elected every two years such that 16 senators constituting two-thirds of the Senate ?always continued into the next Congress.? Since only a majority or 13 of the 24 members were needed to constitute a quorum and do business, the Senate was deemed a continuing body.?

?In contrast,? argued Panganiban, ?under the 1987 Constitution, the term of 12 of the 24 senators expires every three years ?leaving less than a majority to continue into the next Congress. Thus, the present Senate cannot be deemed a continuing body. Ergo, the rules must be republished after the expiration of the term of 12 senators.?

What happens now is, you have a body intended to be, because originally designed to be, and which should be, a continuing body but which is not, because of the valid argument that it never has a continuing quorum to do business!

One of my frustrations with the present Constitution is that it tinkered with all sorts of things that were well thought-out in the past. They could have easily written that one-third of the Senate should be elected every three years, but they didn?t. Now look at the mess the framers created.

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