Popularity largely due to high-profile investigations
MORE than a century after its establishment, the Philippine Senate remains the Filipino people’s most favored institution, outshining the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and even the Executive Department.
The chamber is a stepping stone to Malacañang, with 10 out of 16 Philippine leaders having been senators first before ascending to the presidency: Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino, Carlos Garcia, Ferdinand Marcos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Benigno Aquino 3rd.
With all senators considered presidential timber, the Senate has consistently enjoyed a high public profile, and each member of the chamber is a newsmaker in his or her own right, as shown in the pages of The Manila Times throughout its 120-year history.
“LP senators set showdown” was the banner headline of The Times on January 26, 1964, when a group of Liberal Party lawmakers rebelled against Senate President Ferdinand Marcos for accommodating the opposition Nacionalistas in the majority bloc.
The political noise and infighting were expected as Marcos was gearing for a presidential run, eventually unseating President Macapagal after switching allegiances to the Nacionalista Party in the November 1964 election.
Senate leadership coups are always front-page material. “Angara-Maceda rivalry worsens,” was the headline of a May 1993 story on page one, on the power struggle between Senate President Edgardo Angara of Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino and the media-savvy Sen. Ernesto Maceda of the Nationalist People’s Coalition.
Maceda was of course angling for the Senate presidency, a post that is second in line to the presidency. It was not Maceda who would unseat Angara, however but Neptali Gonzales, the senator from Mandaluyong; Gonzales had done the same to Jovito Salonga in 1993.
It became Gonzales’ turn to be booted out of the Senate leadership in spectacular fashion, when Maceda successfully engineered a coup, with Angara’s help, in October 1996. Maceda kept the post until Gonzales took back his old seat in January 1998.
“The opposition Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino is in tatters. The administration Lakas-NUCD is being rent apart by questions of loyalty and the lure of momentary gain from crisis in a rival party. Amid all this, the International Monetary Fund is worried that the squabbles could waylay vital economic legislation,” wrote Times reporters Danilo P. Lucas, Raffy S. Jimenez and Jun T. Ebias in an October 1996 analysis piece.
In aid of legislation
Senate investigations, “in aid of legislation,” afford maximum and even sustained media exposure, especially in the advent of wall-to-wall coverage in radio, cable news, and lives streaming online.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is considered one of the most powerful committees in the chamber, and therefore one of the most coveted.
Officially known as the Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations, its jurisdiction includes “All matters relating to, including investigation of, malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance in office by officers and employees of the government, its branches, agencies, subdivisions and instrumentalities; implementation of the provision of the Constitution on nepotism; and investigation of any matter of public interest on its own initiative or brought to its attention by any member of the Senate.”
Maceda himself made a career out of exposing malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance, earning the moniker “Mr. Expose” for his probes, including the sensational “Bruneiyuki scandal” in 1994 on an alleged escort service involving show business figures.
Just a month after capturing the Senate presidency in 1996, Maceda unveiled his biggest expose, the “PEA-Amari Land Scam,” which he called the “Grandmother of all Scams” in a privilege speech.
The then Public Estates Authority was found to have illegally entered into a joint venture with private developer Amari Coastal Bay Development Corp., involving inalienable public land.
The Blue Ribbon has also looked into the Fertilizer Fund Mismanagement (2006 and 2009), the Venable foreign public relations contract (2005), the ZTE broadband deal (2009), rice smuggling at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone (2013), anomalies at the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (2011), the PNP Operational Helicopters Acquisition (2011), the plea-bargaining agreement between government prosecutors and Gen. Carlos Garcia or the “euro-generals” controversy (2011); the construction of the 22-story Makati City Hall Annex (2015), the Bureau of Immigration extortion scandal, mining operations and excavations in Zambales, the P6.4-billion shabu shipment from China (2017) and the Dengvaxia anti-dengue vaccines (2018).
On rare occasions, the Senate convened as an impeachment court. In late 2000, it tried the impeachment case of President Joseph Estrada, following the “I Accuse” speech of Sen. Teofisto Guingona Jr. on the illegal numbers game jueteng.
The Senate impeachment court’s refusal to open a second evidence envelop, led by Estrada allies in the chamber, triggered the second EDSA “people power” uprising that drove President Estrada out of power.
In 2012, the Senate convicted Chief Justice Renato Corona for misdeclaration of wealth, in a political decision that divided the nation. Later, a number of senators were found to have accepted development funds from the Aquino government, which lobbied hard to remove Corona.
The Senate itself became the subject of public contempt in 2013 amid revelations that some senators were involved in kickbacks from priority development assistance funds or the so-called pork barrel, over a decade-long period, through bogus non-government organizations set up by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Ramon Bong Revilla Jr. were arrested and jailed, although Enrile and Estrada were later allowed to post bail.
Kicking off the Senate centennial celebrations in 2015, Senate President Franklin Drilon said: “This great institution is not a stranger to spirit-breaking challenges.”
“There were periods in our nation’s history when arrows of controversy were shot at the Senate’s ramparts. But never for a second did these vicious attacks diminish the institution’s zeal to serve our country and people,” he added.
“Acknowledged as a bastion of democracy, the Senate has produced a legion of lawmakers who held the nation in awe because of their intellectual brilliance and boundless love for the motherland. Until now, the Filipino people have not forgotten the wit, eloquence, intellect and nationalism of Claro M. Recto, Jovito Salonga, Lorenzo Tañada to name a few.”
Good satisfaction, approval ratings
Despite numerous controversies, quarterly polls by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia have consistently found the highest satisfaction and approval ratings for the Senate.
The June 2018 SWS survey found net satisfaction with the Senate at +41; the House of Representatives, +25; the Supreme Court, +19; and the Cabinet, +25.
Out of 1,200 respondents, 57 percent were satisfied and 17 percent were dissatisfied with the performance of the Senate; 45 percent were satisfied and 20 were dissatisfied with the House of Representatives; 43 percent were satisfied and 24 percent were dissatisfied with the Supreme Court of the Philippines; and 43 percent were satisfied and 18 percent were dissatisfied with the Cabinet.
The September 2018 Pulse Asia survey found majority approvals for the work done by the Supreme Court (52 percent), the House of Representatives (56 percent), as well as the Senate, which got the highest rating at 63 percent.
“These institutions’ disapproval ratings range only from 7 percent for the Senate to 10 percent for the Supreme Court while indecision toward their performance is most manifest in the case of the Supreme Court (38 percent) and least pronounced toward the Senate (29 percent),” Pulse Asia said in its report.
Robert John Robas, professorial lecturer in political science at Arellano University, told The Manila Times Filipinos continue to see the Senate as a relevant institution “despite the issues within the chamber leadership.”
He attributed the high satisfaction and approval ratings not to the Senate’s lawmaking, but to its high-profile investigations, notably the probe into the botched Mamasapano counter-terror operation and clash with rogue Moro rebels in 2015, the traffic situation, the Makati City Hall Annex, the Duterte government’s anti-drug war, and the entry of P6.4 billion worth of shabu under the noses of the Customs officials.
Robas described the Senate as a “balancing force,” projecting itself as a somewhat independent institution that could serve as an effective check to other branches of government, namely Malacañang and the judiciary.
“They (senators) are able to capture issues relevant to the needs and sensitivity of public. That’s why the Senate enjoys high ratings,” he said.
Jazztin Manalo, a political science lecturer at the University of Santo Tomas, said the incumbent Senate has also benefitted from the high popularity ratings of President Rodrigo Duterte, especially with the Senate majority aligned with the administration.
Summing up the Senate’s accomplishments during its centennial celebration in 2016, then Senate President Aquilino Pimentel 3rd said the Philippine Senate has lasted long because it has always fulfilled its mandate.
“The Senate has enacted relevant laws. The Senate has checked abuses. The Senate has always upheld democratic ideals. The Senate has concurred in beneficial treaties and international agreements but has also rejected some which were deemed not to be to the best interests of the Nation. The Senate has performed its check-and-balance function as an impeachment court. In short, the Senate has always done its duty, and it will continue to do so under its present composition,” he said.