Thursday, April 9, 2015

Can Congress regain its power and dignity?

“Congressional power, like chastity, is never lost, is rarely taken by force, and is almost always given away.”
– David B. Frohnmayer, “The Separation of Powers: the vitality of a constitutional idea”
WHEN the House of Representatives resumes today its inquiry into the Mamasapano incident, it does well to consider this profound insight of Professor Frohnmayer, a former US university president and law dean. It is wrong for House members and the public to presume that President Aquino has taken away from the 16th Congress—from both the House and the Senate—its essential power of oversight and control over the acts of the Executive.
In the hands of the House now lies all hope that the nation will get to fully know what happened in Mamasapano last January 25, why it happened, and who were responsible. The Senate is finished with its inquiry and has submitted its report. The Philippine National Police (PNP) through its Board of Inquiry has also concluded its own inquiry and submitted its findings. The Human Rights Commission rushed its token inquiry, for the foolish purpose of dispelling all impressions that what happened in Mamasapano was a massacre. Even the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has completed its own inquiry and submitted its findings. The Department of Justice which boasted about conducting its own inquiry, has gone silent about the project, discouraged by the thought of Secretary Leila de Lima being laughed at one more time.
Thus, the House inquiry has become our last watering hole in the desert – the last stop where our thirst for truth, justice and accountability can be quenched.
I say to the committees conducting the inquiry that in their hands, either doors will close and secrets will be covered up or the full story of Mamasapano will finally be told.
Three questions to ask
I think the inquiry will render the nation an inestimable service if it gets clear answers to three questions that continue to bug the public and yours truly. This is different and more modest than the 20 questions which some lawmakers have urged President Aquino to answer.
My three questions are:
First, was there, in fact, an order to the AFP troops present at the scene for them to “stand down” and desist from providing rescue and assistance to the beleaguered SAF commandos?
This is different from asking Aquino whether he gave such an order (a question which cannot be posed because Speaker Belmonte ruled out any questioning of the President).
The sensible alternative is to pose the question to the AFP commanders and officers – to ask them squarely whether any of them received at the time such an order, and if so from whom. Whether the answer is yes or no, it will clarify to the public why the military did not act to support the SAF. So at least this mystery will be laid to rest.
Second, when the GRP-MILF peace agreement was negotiated, why did the Aquino government talk only with the MILF and its representatives? Why were other Muslim groups ruled out?
Why was Malaysia present in the negotiations? What was its role and interest in the talks?
Why was there no representative from the military in the Philippine panel?
Third, since President Aquino has accepted full responsibility for the Mamasapano incident, what does this mean or encompass?
Aquino may not be present at the inquiry today, but the House should not shy away from providing a definition of responsibility. It should say whether responsibility is the same as accountability.
Should Aquino’s acceptance of responsibility be treated as a confession? Or as a mere sound bite?
Scrubbing the image of Congress
If the House courageously pursues its inquiry to a satisfactory conclusion and then writes a cogent report, it could set the stage for earnest and serious deliberations on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
Additionally, the House can help its sister chamber by jump-starting the scrubbing of the image and public standing of Congress.
Neither the House nor the Senate should forget that they enjoy the lowest levels of trust among the country’s key political institutions. In the 2014 Trust Index surveys, the Senate enjoyed the lowest level of trust, lower than the House and the President.
In the March Pulse Asia Survey, Speaker Belmonte had the lowest approval rating among the country’s top five officials (Aquino, Binay, Drilon, Belmonte, chief justice Sereno).
Amazingly, the public’s low regard for Congress is almost completely driven by the relationship between the President and Congress. It sinks to its lowest when the President is most dominating of relations. It rises a little when Congress shows independence and holds Malacañang to account.
Historically, esteem for the Senate was never higher than at the time when the chamber voted to reject the proposed military bases treaty with the US in 1991 during the time of President Cory Aquino.
Esteem was never lower than at this time – the era of Benigno BS Aquino 3rd — when the public is incensed by the pork barrel and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), and when senators and congressmen have been indicted for the plunder of public funds.
Likewise, the perception of congressional servility to Aquino – in crushing all moves to impeach him, and in railroading PNoy’s initiative to impeach former chief justice Renato Corona — has taken a heavy toll on congressional dignity and prestige.
The first branch of government
Yet, as professor Frohnmayer suggests, this shabby record does not mean a permanent loss of chastity.
Congress can always work to recapture its power and dignity, because the nation does not have a ready substitute.
The power is always there, because Congress is truly the first branch of government – the most representative of the nation’s political institutions.
Thanks largely to misguided leadership and clueless members, our legislature has consistently looked irresponsible, and too easily bought by the executive.
Like a woman desirous to guard her honor, Congress can still say no. It just has not said it often enough to Aquino.
Now, the 16th Congress must prepare for national elections in 2016, when both a new president and a new legislature will be elected.
This congress is presented the opportunity to polish its image through its inquiries into the Mamasapano incident and its forthcoming deliberations on the Bangsamoro law.
If it exercises statesmanship and upholds the national interest, the way to rehabilitation is open.
If it caves to Malacañang’s typical blandishments of money, it will be time for the people to listen to those who seek an end to bicameralism or a shift to parliamentary government.
Ladies and gentlemen of Congress, your move.

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