The question of quorum | Inquirer Opinion
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The question of quorum

05:01 AM October 18, 2017

This refers to the public hearing of the blue ribbon committee on the “tara” system at the Bureau of Customs, held on Sept. 25, 2017, wherein Sen. Richard Gordon evaded the issue of lack of quorum raised by one of the witnesses and peremptorily ruled her out of order.

Quorum is basically defined as the sufficient number of members of a collegial body to transact business. Under Section 4 of the Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation, one-third of the blue ribbon committee (composed of 17 members) is required to constitute a quorum “but in no case shall it be less than two.” The last phrase applies only in cases of committees the membership of which is less than six. It was, thus, perfectly legitimate for the witness to clarify whether or not the committee was proceeding in accordance with its rules as mandated by Article VI, Section 21, which states: “(T)he Senate or the House of Representatives or any of its committees may conduct inquiries in aid of legislation in accordance with its duly published rules of procedure. The rights of a person appearing in, or affected by, such inquiries be respected.”

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Even the committee’s contempt power under Section 19 of the Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation requires the “majority vote of the members present there being a quorum” to determine whether the witness’ refusal to testify or the invocation of the right against self-incrimination may be a ground to “punish (her) in contempt for contumacious conduct.”

On the other hand, there is nothing in the Rules of Procedure Governing Inquiries in Aid of Legislation that limits to senators the right to raise the issue of quorum. The witness has the constitutional right to question the existence of quorum especially so when it affects her substantial rights. The witness’ humble clarification based on her constitutional right can never be out of order.

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While it was argued by Senator Gordon toward the end of the hearing that he can do it by himself, he however failed to state his legal basis therefore except his usual “kahit nag iisa ako dito p’wede, nanonood sa TV lahat ng senador dito.” However, quorum, as intended by the framers of the rules, demands physical presence. We can only surmise that he was probably referring to Section 22 of the Rules of the Senate (a different set of rules) which states in part that “the committee (not by Chairman Gordon only) may authorize a fewer number of members to conduct public hearings on the bills pending before it or to gather facts in aid of legislation.”

If this was the case, was there a prior specific authority granted by the blue ribbon committee (not by Chairman Gordon alone) allowing a fewer number of senators (less than the quorum required) to gather facts in aid of legislation? If indeed there was such an authority, Senator Gordon did not present any copy of the resolution of the committee to prove such authority. Neither did he refer to any minutes of the committee meeting showing prior conferment of such authority.

It is a fundamental principle in legislation that quorum is presumed, but that is only a disputable presumption. Based on this presumption, the hearings conducted by Senator Gordon were arguably valid because nobody questioned it. However, since it was questioned in the said hearing, it is imperative that quorum has to be established first in accordance with its rules before the body can proceed with the hearing as the rights of the persons appearing therein are affected.

The blue ribbon committee should revisit its rules on legislative investigation including all the jurisprudence related thereto instead of a cheap shot on the witness’ counsel to study his law.

DENNIS R. MANZANAL,
litigation lawyer for 20 years,
[email protected]

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TAGS: Bureau of Customs, Customs corruption, Customs tara system, Dennis R. Manzanal, Inquirer letters, quorum, Ricahrd Gordon
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