Fiscalizer no more? Senate protects Duterte while he's popular
Senators of the 17th Congress were divided on key issues involving the Chief Executive and his administration, but the Senate as an institution has so far given Duterte the leeway and trust he needs. They ousted Duterte's critics from key Senate posts, saying there is a need for a clear majority-minority divide.
The Senate held the year’s biggest investigations involving Duterte and his administration: the rise in the number of summary executions, his alleged involvement in the Davao Death Squad, and the bribery in the Bureau of Immigration, among others.
All ended with conclusions that cleared the Chief Executive of any liability. (READ: Senate ends probe: Neither Duterte nor state sponsored killings)
Traditionally the Senate is known to be more independent than its counterpart, the House of Representatives. In the past year, however, the upper chamber has faced criticism for kowtowing to the President. But administration allies denied this.
While the high-profile hearings got the public’s attention, they were not enough to make a dent on the President’s high approval and satisfaction ratings.
Duterte again proved that he got the chamber’s wide support when he declared martial law – deemed as "an instrument of last resort" – in Mindanao, following clashes with the Maute group. The Senate, just like the House, immediately rejected calls for a joint session to debate the issue. (READ: No joint session on martial law? Congress 'shields' Duterte)
The Senate, with 17 affirmative votes, also adopted a resolution expressing support for the declaration.
The opposition was token at best, and made the year relatively easy for Duterte.
“The President is the president, and there has not been a president who was identified to be responsible in any investigation conducted before. What is expected is, after one's presidency, that's when she or he is made to account for his or her actions while in office,” University of Santo Tomas political science professor Edmund Tayao told Rappler.
“Note that each member is also sensitive to public sentiments that no one would contradict outright a popular executive,” he added.
“This has been the same compared to previous administrations especially in the first half of a sitting President, and especially with a very popular President, you can't expect any categorical opposing view or position from the Senate,” Tayao said.
Top Senate leaders are closely allied with Duterte. Senate President Aquilino Pimentel is a party mate in PDP-Laban, while Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III is a long-time friend and supporter. (READ: Koko Pimentel: His father's son, the President's 'protector')
University of the Philippines-based political analyst Aries Arugay said the Senate is not really acting as the fiscalizer it is traditionally known to be.
“Not as much, because Duterte's coalition holds a majority in the Senate. Duterte is still popular and it’s too early. I mean, why be against [him] when you know you can be on his side and benefit?” Arugay said.
“It doesn't help steer the government in fulfilling its agenda since its too busy shielding the President,” he said.
Former senator Rene Saguisag shared this view. While there is nothing wrong with giving the President a break in his first year, the Senate seemingly overdid it.
"Too Duterte-ish, but nothing wrong with that per se, perhaps, in his rookie year. But Digong and his company in the Senate must change course in governance, on human rights, on our foreign relations. We cannot have a President Duterte, Mayor Duterte, and a Vice Mayor Duterte spitting on the Constitution, and from the Senate, [we get] silence," Saguisag told Rappler.
For political analysts Benito Lim and Tayao, the pro-administration stance of the Senate is not unusual. As long as there are common interests and agenda, Lim said, politicians would side with the President.
“That is a very usual, traditional practice of Philippine politics. It’s not unusual,” Lim said in a telephone interview.
“Some of the members still fiscalize, especially because they belong to the opposition, but most of the time, since the Senate has their own agenda that coincide with those of the President, they will support him,” he said, citing lawmakers' need for budget as an example.
Critics say the chamber has become a rubber stamp of Malacañang but Sotto strongly denied this. Those who accuse them, he said, do not know the inner workings of the Senate.
“If they say that, that means they don’t have a grasp of what’s going on in the Senate. Another thing that I’ve learned is that there are always intramurals within. Sometimes the intramurals within are misinterpreted as being influenced by the Executive, or by the President, but most of the time, no, it’s not influenced,” Sotto told Rappler in an interview.
Sotto said senators, unlike their counterparts in the House, are not easily influenced because they feel they are at the "same level" with the President – they, too, are nationally elected officials.
“Majority have a different type of feeling than all the other elected officials because they are elected at large. They feel like they have been elected like the president and vice president, unlike the other members. That's why it has always been bruited about that the senators are 24 different republics,” Sotto said.
If a senator is supporting the administration, it’s because he or she wants to and not because the President is exerting influence.
“Kaya paano ka basta-basta maiimpluwensiyahan ng President? 'Pag kumakampi sa Presidente, 'yan gusto niya. It’s not because he is being influenced. It means he wants to. Bihirang-bihira, ang feeling nila kasi kasing ranggo sila ng President dahil 'binoto sila at large eh,” he added.
(You cannot be easily influenced by the President. If a senator sides with the President, it means he wants to. It's not because he is being influenced. It means he wants to. It very rarely happens because senators feel they are of the same rank with the President because they were voted at large.)
Not the same for Duterte’s priority bills
While clearing Duterte and his men in investigations, the Senate has not easily given in when it came to the priority measures of the President.
Unlike the House, the Senate has not given importance to the bills reimposing the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal responsibility to include children. In fact, no senator has filed a counterpart bill for the latter.
The Senate conducted at least two hearings on the death penalty, but leaders conceded that the measure would have a difficult time in the chamber. In contrast, the House swiftly approved the bill.
The Senate is also lukewarm to the passage of Malacañang’s version of the tax reform bill.
Administration Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the ways and means committee, opposes the Executive’s proposed tax rates and calls it anti-poor.
Angara is among the re-electionists and, following precedents, imposing higher taxes before elections is far from ideal, if not politically fatal.
'Predictable,' just buying time
The Senate’s actions thus far have been nothing but “predictable,” as they all boil down to common agenda and interests. Arugay, however, said that once the tide shifts, the public could expect the senators, as well as other politicians, to join the wave.
In the meantime, no one would want to “rock the boat” in the early part of a highly popular leader's term.
“It's predictable. They are playing a longer game here. These senators are veteran politicians. They did not survive Philippine politics if they cannot somehow determine the political climate. They are just patiently waiting [for] a change in the political atmosphere,” Arugay said.
“So, for now, most of its members are playing it safe, not rocking the boat too much. But once major issues reach the Senate, we will see where they place themselves,” he added.
The President, for now, is still safe with the Senate behind it – until he commits a major political blunder or register a decline in ratings. – Rappler.com