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COMMENTARY

The Senate as free-for-all ‘pabitin’

05:05 AM October 23, 2018

If there was anything that made me think of voting for Mayor Duterte in 2016, it was his resolute faith that federalism would turn things around for this country, especially for us here in unrealized Agusan.

Back then, I was moderate enough to recognize that federalism wasn’t a cure-all. I knew that the system that allowed political dynasties and warlords to thrive was too entrenched, and that some regions, too worn-out, wouldn’t be able to stand on their own two feet. Also, I felt that no lower court or local initiative could ever topple the corrupt congressmen, governors, mayors and barangay officials who buy their way to office every three years.

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I was nonetheless willing to entertain candidate Duterte because he had said it one too many times and with conviction: “I will abolish the Senate.”

But dozens of broken promises later, it now comes as no surprise that many of the President’s ex-Cabinet members themselves are running for the Senate. Even as the administration is pushing for a unicameral legislative branch in a federalist setup, it also seems to want its own kind in the Senate, which has become a retirement home for has-beens and politicos in need of recycling. True to form, the Senate unveiled the 17th Congress’ “Gallery of Legacy” last week, a printout mural of the chamber’s members in black and white, like a preemptive eulogy.

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When we look at our current roster of senatorial wannabes, they’re mostly persons who’ve had a long enough airtime on TV, someone making a comeback, or somebody’s child banking on a last name. In fact, it wouldn’t take much to predict who the winners would be in 2019: the same names and faces, precisely because most of the nominees are the same names and faces.

Maybe it’s not so much that we vote the wrong people into office. Maybe it’s because we just don’t have much of a choice.

All this points to a crucial and peculiar trait our Senate possesses: Do our senators actually have constituencies, or are they just the most popular kids in class?

When President Quezon decreed that his government would be very much like the Americans’, he wasn’t thinking much about the Senate, where he lorded over as Senate president from 1916 to 1935. Unlike American senators who had certain territories to represent, senators during Quezon’s time had very limited visions of their territories because, more than anything, they needed to please their American counterparts and either stay in Manila or head on to lobby in the United States.

And, after the war, with senators no longer leashed but also left with no great cause, the seeds for personal gains were sown to make the Senate the free-for-all “pabitin” it is now. Our senators never really had, and still don’t have, defined constituencies.

On the other side of the Pacific, the recent hearings on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court, and the reversals by some Republican senators, were testaments to a working feedback loop and a sense of accountability that a senator must maintain with the people he or she is representing. In our case, however, I don’t think Sen. Manny Pacquiao even feared for a second losing Freddie Roach’s favor before that fight in Malaysia.

Here, our senators are answerable only to the President, whoever he may be, because they only want to eventually be him. Without anything to keep its members’ feet on the ground, the Senate will continue to be more like a private membership club — a Manila House for “national” politicians with moist eyes for Malacañang. And this election, with its cavalcade of the same old faces, will not bring forth anything new in this regard.

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Incidentally, a local from Albay and another from Eastern Samar won the P1-billion lotto on Oct. 14. This election will be just like that. We’ll hope, we’ll place our bets, and maybe we’ll get one or two numbers right. Maybe we won’t get anything right. But unless you’re one of the two winners, nothing will change. Hope is just business as usual, and the pattern will
simply repeat itself.

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DLS Pineda teaches at Father Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City. After finishing his undergraduate and master’s degrees in UP Diliman, he decided to reside in his father’s hometown in Agusan del Norte. Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

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