By ATTY. MEL STA. MARIA
The Senate is one of the two great chambers of Congress. But for it to be truly a functioning one serving the interest of our democratic system, it must have the following attributes:
First, it must truly be independent. Only when the Senate strongly asserts its prerogatives can it effectively check the abuses of both the executive department and the judiciary. And even when it seems that these other government branches succeed in their erroneous ways , the Senate must persist to be a moral and institutional force pointing out the errors.
For example, the Senate’s failure to assert its constitutional prerogative in Chief Justice Sereno’s impeachment was a great disappointment to many. For me, the Senate improperly considered non-assertion of authority as showing respect for a co-equal body, the Supreme Court, when in fact such omission was nothing but an abdication of its bounden duty to hear the case of an impeachable constitutional official.
Second, the Senate must be composed of officials responsible enough to understand the significance of the legislative procedures. And, if they do not initially know what they are all about, they should be able to exhibit great, not merely perfunctory, effort to understand them. If they cannot do it or are incapable of understanding them despite their good faith efforts to do so, they must resign. The Senate is not for them.
Third. Though it is not necessary for senators to be geniuses, they must have an intellect capable of legislatively pursuing their advocacy or of arguing clearly, plausibly, and with legal basis, within the confines of the Constitution, complete with empirical data to support or oppose a proposed law, an amendment, or a repeal. For instance, they must know what an ex post facto law is, a bill of attainder, equal-protection-of-the-law-clause, filibuster, sine die adjournment, item veto, veto override, parliamentary inquiry, call-of-the-Senate, Gross Domestic And National Product, export quotas, tonnage and wharfage dues, and others. Not knowing and understanding them will be a disservice to the people.
Fourth, legislation demands having a thorough grasp of local and world affairs, politically and economically. It is a complicated world where the financial situations of countries are already intertwined. Also, the political unrest in one state may affect others. A senator , for example, must understand why movements in the financial strategy of the United States Federal Reserve Board affect our economy or why human rights violations in the Philippines may negatively impact our trade relations, particularly tariff-exemption privileges, with the European Union countries. And legislation may be needed to adjust to worldwide developments. A senator must be able to connect the dots and offer in-depth laws.
There is no place in the Senate for mediocre senators. All of them must be very good. Nothing less can be demanded given their immunities and financial privileges.In January, 2014, the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago revealed that “if you add all other legitimate sources of income such as allowances and honoraria, the total monthly income of a senator could be placed at some P1.4 million.” And that was in 2014. How much more can it be this time in 2019 and the next six years for the incoming senators? Taxpayers’ money must not be wasted for useless senators.
Significantly, the Constitution provides that a senator cannot be arrested while the Senate is in session “for all offenses punishable by not more than six years imprisonment.” Likewise, “no member shall be questioned nor be held liable in any other place for any speech or debate in the Congress or in any committee thereof.”
This coming 2019 senatorial election is indeed crucial. Votes must not be wasted. The unworthy ones must not be seated. Candidates must understand that the Senate is not the venue for witch-hunting investigations, maligning people, pork-barrel, show-boating, and indecent accusations. It is or should be an institution where civil discourse and intelligent debate pervade and where respectable people believe in the rule of law, unaffected by the capricious declarations discordant with the law emanating from the executive and who are always ready to come up with statutes correcting what may be erroneous Supreme Court decision.
Indeed, the burden is heavy for senators. But perhaps the burden is heavier on the part of the voters. President John F. Kennedy said, “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” Let us protect our democracy. We have to wisely vote for the right senators.