The Long View

What a senator does

The first surveys looking at public opinion concerning candidates for the Senate recently came out, and while people have been cheering or jeering the survey results, there’s hardly been any discussion on what, exactly, senators do, or are expected to do, and how that squares away with the candidates doing well or badly.

Every voter, anywhere in the nation (and, if registered, abroad) has the opportunity to pick 12 individuals to fill the forthcoming vacancies in the Senate. It helps to understand what the framers of our constitutions had in mind when the job of senator was created.


Our Senate is unique in that senators all represent one district — the entire country, in contrast to, say, districts or states. The reason for this dates back to the time the replacement of senatorial districts with senators being elected-at-large was discussed in the 1934 constitutional convention. But those in favor of a bicameral legislature remained split on the question of senatorial districts or election-at-large, so the unicameralists won. But by 1939, the debate on amending the Constitution was revived, and by 1941, the first at-large senatorial election was held.

Ideally, the Senate we have, dependent on the entire nation to elect its members, is supposed to promote a national approach to lawmaking, which includes a national perspective on policy. This is supposed to serve as a healthy contrast to the parochial and regionalistic thinking that (the framers were worried at the time) could make legislation shortsighted. Competing for votes and representing the nation as a whole, senators were thus supposed to imbibe a national point of view, which accomplished two things. In a practical sense, it marked the “graduation” of local leaders to becoming national ones, and in this way, it prepared them for competition for that other national position, that of president.

To restore the Senate after it was abolished in 1935, the 1940 amendments introduced an innovation not seen elsewhere in bicameral legislatures: The power of confirmation was split between the House and the Senate, instead of being the exclusive prerogative of the Senate as it was from 1916-1935. The Senate, however, retains two powers traditionally held by the Upper House: that of ratifying international treaties (a check and balance on the otherwise exclusive power of the President to determine and manage foreign affairs) and serving as a jury to pass judgment on impeachable officials.

When the Senate was first restored, it was presented as a “conservative reform,” an answer to what was seen at the time as the emerging trend of increasingly radical representation in the Lower House. Supposedly, the Senate would serve as a body that could temper radicalism. The opposite has turned out to be the case: As it has evolved, the Senate has become the body more likely to embark on reform, while the House resists it (consider, for example, how proposed legislation on freedom of information or reproductive health has tended to prosper in the Senate but fare less well in the House).

In one respect, a calculation made at the time the Senate was restored has failed. From the start, those proposing a Senate elected-at-large were aware that the biggest dangers to a mature Upper House were the twin threats of celebrity and money. The antidote to this — and indeed, the basis for expecting the Senate to serve as a kind of proving ground for aspiring national leaders — was to facilitate a party approach to electing senators. Parties, managing the rise of candidates, could be expected to ensure a mix of regional candidates, such as the premartial law practice of always including a Moro candidate, for example.

Bloc voting, in which a vote for a party credited votes to the entire slate, meant even obscure candidates could have a chance if carried by a party in its slate. It’s no coincidence that after bloc voting was abolished in the 1950s, “guest” candidates (Claro M. Recto was the first) who straddled party lines, and celebrity candidates (the first actor-candidate, Rogelio de la Rosa), were elected. (As an aside, when you think of it, the logical place for party-list candidates, then, isn’t the House, but the Senate).

These simple expectations, then, provide a straightforward guide as to what senators are supposed to be: people imbued with a perspective that considers the whole country; who are imbued with the knowledge and character to work with, but oppose when necessary, the only other official who can claim to have been elected by, and who thus represents, the entire Filipino people — the president (the vice president is just a spare tire).

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TAGS: 2019 elections, 2019 senatorial elections, Manuel L. Quezon III, Senate, The Long View
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