Weaker Senate opposition without Enrile?
MANILA, Philippines – With opposition senators detained and Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago on sick leave, will the Senate lose critical voices to scrutinize administration measures like the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)?
Members of the Senate minority are now down from 6 to 4, with the detention of Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Jinggoy Estrada for plunder over the pork barrel corruption scandal.
Before the opening of session on Monday, July 28, the remaining members senators Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Gregorio Honasan II, Nancy Binay, and JV Ejercito held a caucus to discuss the future of the minority bloc following the loss of its two members.
Deputy Minority Leader Sotto does not see any negative impact on checks and balances in the chamber, even after observers pointed out that administration allies were in full force in defending the DAP during the hearing last week. DAP is the administration’s spending program but key acts under it were declared unconstitutional.
“We just have more work now, but it’s almost the same. You see me here. I am the first in and last out,” said Sotto, referring to his attendance record in Senate sessions.
Ejercito though said the DAP hearing made him realize how outnumbered the minority is now.
“There I realized that this is really a game of numbers. We have the freedom to express ourselves, whether majority or minority, the freedom to speak. But for every member of the minority, there are 5 majority members. Sometimes, the feeling is as if we are drowning,” Ejercito told reporters.
Senate finance committee chairman Francis Escudero though said Binay and Ejercito were able to hold their own during the DAP hearing.
“Even in Congress before, more or less, there were 260 majority members. We in the minority were just 16. It’s not in numbers but in how you carry out the job,” Escudero said.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr agreed, saying Senate dynamics are different anyway.
“Here in the Senate, you notice it’s very rare we go with the party line. At least for us in the Nacionalista Party, we are not ordered how to vote so it’s very much a conscience vote. Once in a while, maybe for the vote for Senate President, we follow the party line, but I don’t think it will change in the sense that people will continue to vote and debate their advocacy no matter what the administration or minority line is,” said Marcos, who also criticizes President Benigno Aquino III even if he is a member of the majority bloc.
Enrile and Santiago are two legal eagles of the Senate. Enrile though is detained along with Estrada and Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr for plunder after facing allegations of channeling development funds to fake NGOs in exchange for millions of pesos in kickbacks. Santiago is on sick leave to seek treatment for lung cancer.
De La Salle University political science department assistant professor Gladstone Cuarteros earlier told Rappler the Senate minority is considerably weakened, with reports that charges might soon be filed against Honasan and Sotto.
Yet he said Senator Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III can still be counted on to show his independence despite being the 2010 campaign manager of Aquino.
“When he talks, you know he studies. He seems to be intelligent. He is our hope in ensuring balance in the Senate,” Cuarteros said.
Poverty, energy, agriculture in contra-SONA
The minority bloc said it will deliver a “contra-SONA” or a speech responding to Aquino’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) this week. Members are still unsure whether or not Enrile will craft the speech while in detention, and just have it delivered to the Senate so one of them can read it.
Still, Ejercito is bent on giving a contra-SONA, the first time one such speech will be delivered in the Senate since 2010.
“I’m sure the President will emphasize his accomplishment in fighting graft and corruption in sending 3 senators to jail, but if he is really serious, he should not be selective. Don’t stop with the 3 opposition senators because there are many of his allies who are mentioned but it seems the charges did not push through,” Ejercito said.
Poverty alleviation is also a focus of the speech. “We want to tackle agriculture – 2015 is just around the corner but it seems that there are no preparations, no urgency for the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. Peace and order, to maintain the good investment climate. Power generation, because if we do have a crisis in 2015, all of the economic gains the administration is boasting about will be gone,” Ejercito said.
Ejercito said he will visit Enrile and consult with him how to go about the speech this week.
“The administration should not worry. We will not do a contra-SONA to criticize. But we want to make sure that in the last two remaining years of the administration, we improve the areas where we think he has shortcomings,” said Ejercito.
Sotto to study Enrile expertise
Sotto said there is not much difference in the tasking of the minority senators. He will just have to step up as he becomes acting minority leader.
“It’s just a bit difficult because, in my case, I am forced to study all issues. Because before, when I know it’s Manong Johnny’s expertise, I no longer study it and let him tackle the issue on the floor. Now, he is not here so I will be forced to.”
Sotto said though this does not mean the Senate will become a rubber-stamp of Malacañang.
“Remember in the 8th Congress, it was Senator Enrile who was the lone minority. It used to be him and former President Joseph Estrada, but President Erap shifted to the Liberal Party. Still, he was able to do his job.” – Rappler.com
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