Checks and balances



Jejomar C. Binay Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President

In theory, Congress is an independent and co-equal branch of government, alongside the executive and the judiciary. The three branches of government are inter-dependent, yet their powers separate and distinct.

As explained by the noted constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ: “Each is prevented from invading the domain of the other. But the separation is not total. The system allows for ‘checks and balances,’ the net effect of which is that, in general, no one department is able to act without the cooperation of at least one of the other departments.”

“The purpose of separation of powers and ‘checks and balances’ is to prevent concentration of powers in one department and thereby avoid tyranny,” he adds. But it comes with a price, he explains, and it is the “the risk of a degree of inefficiency and even the danger of gridlock.”

Yet Bernas quotes the esteemed Justice Brandeis to place the issue squarely: “The doctrine of separation of powers was adopted… not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power…to save the people from autocracy.”

In practice, however, any newly elected President would always move to secure control of Congress, particularly the House of Representatives. It has also become a political ritual that during the first months of a new administration, newly elected legislators would abandon their previous parties en masse to join the party of the new president. The reasons for this are practical: survival and access to largesse. Yet it reveals the festering weakness of our party system and the highly personalistic nature of our politics. When elected officials readily invest their political fortunes not on solid party principles but on one person, checks and balances becomes a casualty.

As I earlier stated, the principle of checks and balances is intended to prevent one branch from asserting its dominance over another, or to be precise, to prevent the executive from bending the will of the legislature and the judiciary. Attempts at executive overreach have been made in the past, more pronounced and persistent during the previous administration, where the wishes of the Palace were executed in Congress by the sheer force of numbers. Those who refuse to accede were deprived of access to the resources generously extended to followers, punishing not only the dissenter but his constituents who are also taxpayers.

Under a situation where Congress refuses to perform its checks-and-balances role and becomes not only subservient but a mere extension of the executive, who then do we turn to as fiscalizer?

In the United States, the US Congress -- whose House of Representatives is now dominated by Democrats -- has made it clear that it intends to pursue its role of checking what many consider the abuse of power of the executive department, particularly President Trump, through “legislation, investigation, and nominations.” The Republicans will now find it difficult to use its numbers to pass the US president’s often controversial legislative agenda.

Political interests -- or the interest of the ruling power -- dictate the voting behaviors of most elected representatives. That has been our reality since our inception as a Republic, becoming the norm during the years of martial law, and sadly resurrected after the 1986 EDSA Revolution. The question has been asked many times: How representative are our representatives?

Shouldn’t it be time for Congress to regain its fiscalizing voice? Not obstructionist, or opposing for the sake of opposing. But rather a constructive legislature and not a pliant one. Rather than bicker with the executive over who has the authority to allocate pork barrel, shouldn’t we debate how to allot government resources equitably, how to mitigate the impact of inflation, how to share with our citizens the gains of economic growth?

Our unfortunate experience with the previous administration unmasks the fragility of checks and balances in the face of leaderships determined to consolidate and perpetuate its grip on power. Our institutions, most specially the legislature, should never be a party to plots aimed at prolonging one group or one person’s stay in power at the expense of democracy and our Constitution. Congress should be an institution to build a country and achieve a vision, not a tool to destroy reputations and undermine democracy.

Perhaps it is time for Congress to be truly representative of the people rather than the ruling power. In this, I remain very hopeful.

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