By Hannah Torregoza
To members of the Senate minority bloc, 2018 was a year that clearly reinforced the Senate’s independence as an institution.
It was this year that Senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV, one of the most vocal critics of the Duterte administration, became the subject of legal quandaries after President Duterte revoked his amnesty, which was granted to him by the Aquino administration.
It can be recalled that last September, Duterte issued Proclamation No. 572 declaring Trillanes’ amnesty “void ab initio” saying the latter failed to comply with the minimum requirements to qualify under the amnesty program offered by the previous government to those who faced rebellion and coup d’ etat charges for their participation in the Oakwood Mutiny and the Manila Peninsula incident in 2003 and 2007.
Yet, despite the legal troubles that hounded him, the Senate leadership, led by Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, chose to accord Trillanes with hospitality and allowed him to stay at his office while he faced his legal battle.
Sotto takes over
Sotto took over the Senate leadership in May after Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, president of the ruling PDP-Laban party, stepped down as chief of the upper chamber. This was after 15 members of the majority bloc signed a manifesto and elected Sotto as the new leader.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon had expected then that Sotto would be able to defend the Senate as an institution against the members of the PDP-Laban who were criticizing it.
Prior to Sotto’s election as Senate president, the House of Representatives then led by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez had called the Senate as the “mabagal na kapulungan” or “slow congress,” blaming the institution for delaying the approval of some measures, particularly the tax reform program.
Alvarez and his allies in the House have also slammed the Senate for refusing to act on the various proposals to pursue Charter change measures that would pave the way for federalism.
Though Pimentel issued statements defending the Senate from the attacks of the House leadership, the minority senators, and even some members of the majority, found it wanting.
Sotto, however, shot down speculations he is a puppet and could be dictated upon by the administration when he, during the opening of the Third Regular Session of Congress, uttered a strongly worded message on the importance of the Senate’s participation in the amendments of the 1987 Constitution.
“We are needed in small things, but we are not needed in changing the Philippine Constitution? If our consent is needed in small things, more so in bigger things,” Sotto remarked.
“To say or even insinuate that we are unnecessary and irrelevant is unacceptable. I don’t wish to preside during my watch over the necrological services of the Philippine Senate. Especially so today, when we are confronted with a number of momentous choices affecting our nation,” Sotto said.
There’s more collaboration
Sen. Paolo “Bam” Aquino IV, for his part said, that though the Senate leadership change was entirely a majority bloc affair, they welcomed the transition.
“Firstly, I think we’re doing better. There’s more collaboration, more cooperation among the senators. And I’m hoping yung mga mahahalagang reporma, mapasa talaga (that significant reforms would be passed),” Aquino said in an interview.
The feisty Sen. Leila de Lima, who is still detained at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center as she is facing drug charges, agreed with Aquino, commending the leadership of the Senate under Sotto.
“Senator Sotto is one of the most senior members of the Senate. He is no stranger to being part of the Senate leadership. He’s been there long enough to be able to work with great statesmen and we benefit from his perspective and experience,” De Lima said in a written note to the Manila Bulletin.
Productive amid a ‘horrible’ political climate
For De Lima and Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the year 2018 was so far “very productive” as many of the bills that they have been hearing were finally deliberated and passed in the plenary and the new senators “are hitting their stride.”
“I also note Senate’s display of independence and resilience this year by not allowing itself to be affected by political pressure, specifically on the matters of Charter Change, of Senator Sonny Trillanes’ arrest, and of the proposed national budget for 2019,” De Lima noted.