What’s a neophyte senator to do?

Rappler compiles the top 10 tips of Senate seniors and insiders for the 6 neophyte senators

MANILA, Philippines – “Senador agad?!

During the campaign, some candidates became the magnet of criticism for their inexperience and lack of  competence. Like them or not, they will now join the group of legislators who will formally assume their posts in the 16th Congress.

On Monday, July 22, Sonny Angara, Bam Aquino, Nancy Binay, JV Ejercito, Grace Poe, and Cynthia Villar will take their oath as senators. They form one of the youngest batches – with an average age of 44 – to join the exclusive club that is the Senate.

In a chamber that produced statesmen and presidents, the 2013 batch is composed of some members without any legislative and political background. To make up and catch up, they took short courses, and scouted lawyers for their staff.

Yet beyond the lectures, nothing beats actual experience. Rappler talked to Senate seniors, insiders, and senators who were rookies not too long ago, to find out how best to adjust to Senate work, and what exactly being senator entails.

WATCH: 6 neophyte senators face tough challenges 

Here are their top 10 tips for neophyte senators: 

1. The Senate is not an institution for learning.

A bristling Sen Juan Ponce Enrile once delivered this line addressed to his colleagues who came unprepared. Preparation is a common advice newbies get. But how do they prepare? 

Senate longtimer Renato Bantug Jr, executive director for legislation, says preparation involves understanding the function of the chamber.

“Although it’s forgotten most of the time, it is actually Congress which is the policy-making body of government. There’s a misconception that it’s the executive but in the US for example, you can really see a very strong Congress asserting its position. Here, it’s a consensus-type of leadership where we have Congress and the executive talking and crafting a common policy.”

Part of preparation is knowing the different hats a senator wears. In a booklet he used to hand out to newbies, former Sen Juan Flavier details the roles of a senator: lawmaking, public advocacy, constituency building, and government oversight.

READ: ‘A senator must act with integrity’

Besides learning the basics, former Sen Rene Saguisag says becoming senator means appreciating the institution’s history, and living up to the name of its best members.

“The Senate of old, the one that preceded ours, talagang mga statesmen iyon eh: Lorenzo Tañada, Pepe Diokno, Jovy Salonga, Gerry Roxas. So sana ito namang incoming Senate they will look at those icons.”

A human rights lawyer, Saguisag was senator from 1987 to 1992.

“Talagang noong dumating ako sa Senado, medyo insecure ako, inferiority complex. ‘Ano bang ginagawa ko dito? Sinusundan ko mga Quezon, mga Laurel.’ Pero looking at those who followed us, kako sana huwag malaman ng mga apo ko na once upon a time, senador ang lolo nila.”

(When I came to the Senate, I felt insecure and had inferiority complex. ‘What am I doing here? I am following the Quezons and the Laurels.’ Looking at those who followed us, I said I hope my grandchildren won’t know their grandpa was once upon a time a senator.)

2. You have to be a specialist and a generalist at the same time.

With legislation as the chief function, Bantug says a senator’s first batch of bills indicates his or her advocacies, setting the tone for the 6-year term.

In the first week of filing, Poe’s bills were on nutrition and film tourism, Binay’s were about women and children, and Angara’s on education, for example.

READ: Bills galore: Senators move to fulfill campaign promises 

Yet as national representatives, senators cannot confine themselves to their pet issues and provinces. The media and various sectors will ask their views on topics ranging from the Visiting Forces Agreement to dividing Camarines Sur.

“You cannot possibly read everything. That’s why your choice of staff is crucial,” says Sen Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, the newest senator in the 15th Congress, assuming the post only in 2011.

Senators are given a budget for personnel and the leeway to use it. Former Sen Joker Arroyo had a staff of just 3 while Sen Antonio Trillanes IV has 40. The staff is divided into teams like legal, political, finance, administration, and media.

“The collective knowledge of your staff must be about everything pending in the Senate and what are hitting the headlines, the burning issues of the day, and not only national, but also in the regional, provincial and local levels,” Pimentel says.

“And then the senator must have a working knowledge of the collective knowledge of his staff.”

ATTEND HEARINGS. Neophyte senators are urged to attend committee hearings, where the bulk of the legislative work takes place. File photo by Senate PRIB/Albert Calvelo

3. The real work is in committee hearings.

Bantug says another misconception about Senate work is, it takes place mostly in the plenary. In reality, a bill’s nuts and bolts are forged at the committee level.

“That’s where new legislators will be able to have a better feel of the lawmaking process. Especially at the start of a new Congress, it will take a while before their bills will reach the plenary, so that will give ample time for new legislators really to get a good grasp of the institution,” Bantug says.

The problem is that with 39 regular committees and 35 oversight panels, two or 3 hearings are held simultaneously. This is where staff work again comes in.

READ: P500M a year: Will Senate slash bloated committees? 

“In the meetings that you cannot personally be at hand, you will have to send your staff so the staff will make his or her report to you so once the bill reaches the plenary, you will have a good idea what this bill is all about,” Bantug says.

For incoming Senate President Franklin Drilon, newcomers must pay extra attention to hearings of the Committee on Finance, which he headed in the 15th Congress.

“It’s where each agency of this government will present their budget and therefore you will know the purpose, objective, plans of an agency. Being senator requires a working knowledge of the entire bureaucracy. It is a very valuable learning process for a senator because then you equip yourself,” says Drilon.

Budget deliberations can be technical but Bantug says Commission on Audit reports will teach beginners about agencies’ use of funds. “That’s a very good place to start.”

BRACE YOURSELF. Senators advise their new colleagues to prepare well for their first speech. Legal luminaries like Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago are sure to interpellate them. File photo by Senate PRIB/Joseph Vidal

4. The first speech is your baptism of fire.

Once bills make it out of the committees, they are presented to the plenary for debates. This is where the seniors test the mettle of the freshmen, and where they are on their own.

“You have to be prepared to answer their interpellation and they will try to put you in your place right away so you have to keep your feet on the ground,” says Trillanes, who joined the Senate in 2010 after being pardoned for the Oakwood Mutiny and the Manila Peninsula siege.

He said he was able to manage because he read up on Senate rules and transcripts, and conducted hearings behind bars in the first half of his term. The coup plotter-turned-senator completed a master’s degree in Public Administration at the University of the Philippines in 2005.

“From where I came from, we were wired to focus on the mission. When I got to enter the Senate, I reviewed the terrain. I understand there are many senior senators but you have to realize that you are a voice of your constituents so you have that moral obligation to stand up and to speak up with conviction.”

Estrada was also fresh from detention with his father, former President Joseph Estrada, when he became senator in 2004. A former mayor of San Juan and a longtime actor, he got the shock of his life when he stepped into the session hall.

“Sabi ko, ’Wow, ganito pala ang Senate. Ang tatalino ng lahat ng nakakasama!’ Siyempre naka-focus sa mga newcomer eh, lalung-lalo na sa tatlong artista: ako, si Senator Bong at si Senator Lito. Ako naman, modesty aside, nakatapos naman ako. I even took up law up to 4 years,” says the now acting Senate President.  

(I said, ‘Wow, this is what it’s like in the Senate. They’re all so smart!’ Of course, the focus was on the newcomers, especially the 3 actors: me, Sen Bong and Sen Lito. Modesty aside, I completed my studies.)

Despite his preparations, Estrada admits he still gets intimidated and avoids debating with legal luminaries.

5. A non-lawyer can be an effective senator.  

Pimentel has a different experience. A bar topnotcher, he says being senator is “a nicer form of law school.”

Bantug says though that non-lawyers are not less qualified to be lawmakers because they provide a different perspective, and help make bills easier to understand.

Drilon agrees, saying some non-lawyers became their own experts like Sen Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III on energy and banking, Sen Ralph Recto on taxation, and Sen Loren Legarda on the environment.

The former Justice and Labor Secretary added that non-lawyers can approach legal bigwigs like Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago and Enrile on constitutional issues.

6. Seniority, majority and unwritten rules  

The Senate is an institution steeped in tradition as seen in the prevalence of senior senators and members of the majority, especially in committee chairmanships.

Senators often tell younger colleagues to master the Senate rules. Yet there are traditions and practices not found in the book. 

Pimentel says he learned this from former Majority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III.

“For example, the ‘no cloture rule.’ You are allowed to filibuster. I could not find that in the Senate rules. In my interpretation of the rules, the sponsor can ask for the closure of the debates so the issue can be settled already but they say filibustering is allowed because of the ‘no cloture rule.’”

Pimentel says this rule allowed debates on the Reproductive Health law to drag on.

He also found out about the Majority Leader’s “second agenda.” “Even if a bill is not in the schedule, there’s a certain schedule of unfinished business where the Majority Leader can anytime pull out an item, then take it up in plenary.”

“So if you have good ties with the Majority Leader, you can ask that your pending bill be taken up even if it’s not on the agenda. Those are the secrets.”

NOT HOBBY. Former Sen Rene Saguisag says senators should stop outside commitments, saying theirs is a 24/7 job. Photo from Indio GMA 7 Facebook page

7. Being a senator is not a hobby.

Some senators juggle the job with careers in show business, prominently figuring in movies, noontime shows and film festivals.

Saguisag strongly condemns this. “Itigil iyang mga teleserye. Puwede ba naman nagi-Indio ka, andun si Bong eh ang bibigat ng problema? Kailangan basahin mo halimbawa Dan Brown’s Inferno, 461 pages. Kailangan pag-aralan mo, ano ba itong problema sa Sabah. Aba eh, hindi mo puwedeng gawing hobby lang o sideline ang pagiging senador!”

(Stop the soap operas. How can Bong do Indio when we have such heavy problems? You need to read for example, Dan Brown’s Inferno, 461 pages. You have to study our problem in Sabah. You can’t make being a senator a hobby or sideline!)

Hindi puwede pakendeng-kendeng ka lang, pareport-report ka lang doon, iniintay mo lang ang bonus mo,” he adds.

(You can’t just walk while swaying your hips there, report there, and wait for your bonus.)

CONSCIENCE VOTE. Former Sen Rene Saguisag says self-interest is the prevailing rule in the Senate but the challenge is to make a conscience vote. File photo by Senate PRIB/Puti Calvelo

8. Solicit views, don’t just dole out money.

While they have constituency work, senators say common folk confuse their job with that of local executives and ask for everything from medical, financial to burial assistance.

These expectations gave birth to the creation of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), whose abuses were exposed in the pork barrel scam.

Senators get P200 million each year in PDAF, but Pimentel says even when used properly, it is still not enough given the culture of patronage in the Philippines.

“There’s never enough budget. There’s never enough time and there’s never enough memory space in your cellphone to accommodate all these requests. But if the budget is used up, what will you say? Ubos na.” (There’s none left.)

Pimentel says both lawmakers and citizens must change their definition of constituency work.

“Utak naman, huwag puro tiyan. ‘Senator, puhunan nga sa negosyo dahil gutom kami.’ Puro ganoon eh. Wala bang, ‘Kababayan, anong stand niyo dito para ma-process ko?’ Kasi ako nakapag-aral, so ang point of view ko, point of view ng taong nakapag-aral. Gusto ko naman ng point of view ng taong hindi nakapag-aral.”

(Let’s use our brains and not just our stomachs. ‘Senator, we need funds for our business because we’re hungry.’ It’s always like that. Isn’t there, ‘Constituents, what’s your stand on this issue?’ Because I am a learned person so my point of view is different. I want the point of view of someone who didn’t finish school.)

9. Push the right buttons.

Trillanes says amateur senators must also learn to play politics to ensure their bills are passed. He calls this “pushing the right buttons.”

“It’s not really about befriending but you have to understand their concerns. For example, if it’s [former] Sen Joker Arroyo, he’s particular about certain civil liberties so if he has a concern about your bill, you can talk to him.”

Sotto admits as much, telling reporters that in the Senate, issues boil down to personal relationships, not party affiliations.

Trillanes though says senators should draw the line. The fierce Enrile rival says the public has no idea how intense political maneuvering and leveraging can get.

“During the impeachment, we had so many caucuses which were done privately. And in those caucuses, you can feel how a certain bloc is trying to sway all the others. Sadly, for some, they use that to gain concessions from the executive or from the different lobby groups.”

When he was a neophyte, Saguisag says his peers succinctly summed up their advice. “Ne, iisa lang ang rule natin dito, self-interest. Ang kasama mo ngayon, iiwanan ka bukas.”

(We only have one rule here: self-interest. Your friend today will abandon you tomorrow.)

LEVERAGE, MANEUVER. Sen Antonio Trillanes IV says during impeachment caucuses, some senators will use their bloc to swing key decisions. File photo by Senate pool

10. It’s not all alliances and survival.

Above personal weaknesses, neophytes also face the challenge of becoming senator at a time when it is unpopular to be one, with scandals like the Senate fund controversy and the pork barrel scam tainting the institution’s image.

Saguisag says this is why senators must weigh survival and alliances against their conscience. He hopes the new lawmakers are up to the task.

“Huwag muna natin husgahan ang mga supposedly pinabili lang ng suka ay senador na. Nandiyan na iyan. If we cannot have what we like, we have to like what we have and we do that by praying and supporting them that they be deserving of our respect and gratitude.”

(Let’s not judge those who look like they were just asked to buy vinegar and then came back as senators. They’re there.)

In a position where their words become law and their actions affect millions, Saguisag says senators must remember where that power came from.

“Kalimutan ang pagkapalalo dahil talagang sila ay alipin natin.” (Forget haughtiness because senators are really our slaves.) – Rappler.com

 

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