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Dysfunctional priorities: the new Senate building

The construction of a new Senate building in Bonifacio Global City (BGC), a high-end commercial and residential enclave now prone to rapid traffic congestion, reflects the growing dysfunction of our national priorities. It turns a myopic eye to history and to the future, raising concerns about the probity and intellectual reach of this august body.

When the institution of Congress was mandated by the 1987 Constitution, it was apparent that the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City, designed as a unicameral parliament, would not accommodate two legislative chambers. This led to the Senate’s current location in the GSIS building under a long-term lease arrangement. It took time for the Senate to decide about its future premises — and when it finally did, it did so in a manner that betrayed its habit of hauteur.

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Setting aside the costs of the edifice and its amenities — estimated at some P10 billion to P15 billion — the ongoing project makes very little sense in the way we organize the core institutions of our government.

The most vital fact about Congress is its bicameral organization and the dispersal of power between its two chambers. Politics is the most persistent and most important element in the legislative process, and it has been a time-honored tradition for the Senate and the House to perform their shared tasks under one roof, in reasonably close proximity to each other. So why a stand-alone Senate building in BGC? Indeed, why plan and build solely for the Senate, not for the institution of Congress?

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There are many reasons why the stand-alone Senate edifice is a shortsighted, self-indulgent move.

First, it will physically separate the two houses of Congress on a permanent basis, without cogent and compelling reasons. Operating in two different jurisdictions hampers rather than eases the tasks of the Senate and the House, especially in times when Congress as a whole must gain support and cobble coalitions for or against vital measures. Cell phone chats and teleconferences will not do in situations that require earnest debates.

Second, with this new edifice, the Senate sets itself apart as the more elite, more privileged and superior chamber. This weakens rather than strengthens the cooperation and collaborative spirit that permeates the legislative process. Worse, it is also likely to invite, in the near future, a similar House plan to construct a grander, more sophisticated office complex at the expense of our taxpayers.

Third, Congress is constantly engaged in struggles with other political institutions — the executive branch, the judiciary and the bureaucracy — to assert its institutional prerogatives. The anomaly of a stand-alone Senate structure in the cosmopolitan shades of BGC adds nothing meaningful to help solve substantive  problems. Rather it fosters resentment, distrust and paralysis between the chambers in shaping public policy.

Fourth, Congress should operate in a far more generous location, appropriate for future development, due to its pivotal role in Philippine governance. The new Senate’s limited accessibility to the public is not conducive to its role as a forum for national issues. Poor access is bound to undermine the increasingly crucial role of interest groups, civil society and political action groups in the legislative process.

Finally, and most importantly, the country is missing a rare opportunity to erect a truly historic landmark, one that celebrates our commitment to democratic ideals. To establish a singular Senate should not be our goal. It should be to encourage and support a Congress adept at crafting laws, pursuing strategies for our common welfare and security, and cultivating our national character. “Without a national character,” wrote the political philosopher Francis Lieber, “states cannot obtain that longevity and continuity of political society which is necessary for our progress.”

Iconic buildings and structures help define our national character, for they are monuments and symbols that provide a legible past and a plausible future. They are important to our national esteem, advancing as they do our most enduring social visions and ensuring the sustainability of our civilization.

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Rex D. Lores (rxdlores@gmail.com) is a member of the Philippine Futuristics Society.

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