Panelo chides Senate for holding 'question hour', not a probe 'in aid of legislation'

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo has branded the Senate hearings on alleged corruption in government amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as a mere "question hour" and not a true-blue investigation "in aid of legislation".

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo (Malacañang photo)

In a statement Wednesday, Sept. 15, Panelo noted that the Supreme Court (SC) "takes judicial cognizance of the fact that the right of Congress to conduct inquiries in aid of legislation is susceptible to abuse".

"For one, the inquiry itself might not properly be in aid of legislation and just be a veiled usurpation of judicial functions — similar to what is happening now," he said, referring to the ongoing Senate hearings.

According to him, the SC had established in the Senate vs. Ermita case that a question hour under Section 22, Article VI of the 1987 Constitution is different from inquiries in aid of legislation under Section 21.

"The former does not empower the Senate to resort to compulsory processes and compel the attendance of department heads belonging to the executive branch," underscored Panelo.

"What the Senate is performing now is, at most, its authority under Section 22 on question hour as we note that no new legislation is being contemplated by its members. Hence, it may not compel department heads to attend its hearings nor cite them in contempt if they refuse to participate," he explained.

In his latest "Talk to the People" public briefing that was aired Tuesday morning, President Duterte said he would instruct Cabinet officials--his "alter egos" in government--to seek permission from him first before going to the Senate hearings that they've been invited to attend.

"This was actually the ruling in Senate vs. Ermita where the Supreme Court upheld as valid the provisions in EO (Executive Order) 464 requiring department heads to secure the consent of the President prior to appearing before the Congress in relation to Section 22 on question hour," Panelo said, refering to an issuance made by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

However, Panelo opined that Duterte's "prior consent" rule would still hold water even if the Senate can turn its proceedings into a proper investigation in aid of legislation, or for the purpose of creating laws.

"If, by any chance, the Senate is able to convert its hearings to one that is in aid of legislation, then the President's directive still stands as invitations may be assessed on a case-to-case basis to determine if executive privilege may be invoked."

"In sum, it behooves Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) to keep itself in check in its ostensible conduct of official business, lest it transgress the limits prescribed by the Constitution," concluded Panelo.

Duterte has accused the senators of conducting the hearings for the sake of gaining attention and media mileage ahead of the May 2022 national elections.