MANILA, Philippines – Lawmakers are integral to the check and balance structure of the government. But they, too, are human, capable of committing errors and mistakes. Who, then, checks on them – the supposed fiscalizers of government?
The Senate committee on ethics and privileges has jurisdiction on all matters relating to the conduct, rights, privileges, safety, dignity, integrity and reputation of the chamber and its members.
This stemmed from the constitutional provision allowing Congress to “punish its members for disorderly behavior” through suspension or expulsion.
But while the intention is good, one could not expect senators to turn against friends and colleagues. The Senate, after all, is still a political body.
The issue again came under the spotlight after a certain lawyer Abelardo de Jesus filed an ethics complaint against neophyte Senator Leila de Lima based on President Rodrigo Duterte’s accusations that she was involved in illegal drugs during her term as justice chief.
Votes, pet bills
Former senator Rene Saguisag, previously chair of the ethics committee, admitted it is difficult to decide on the fate of accused colleagues, some of whom may even be seatmates in the Session Hall.
The Senate, as a collegial body, works on the rule of the majority. As such, Saguisag said it is difficult for a senator to antagonize a peer whose votes he or she may need for a pet bill or project.
“Everyone has pet bills, which need votes from colleagues. It’s not easy to go to work regularly with someone, one does not get along well,” Saguisag said in an interview.
This, among others, may have led senators to avoid heading the committee, which could jeopardize their relationship with colleagues.
After all, committee reports of the ethics panel can be likened to a 201 report of an employee. It is where decisions on a senator’s alleged wrongdoing are put in black and white, and ultimately archived in Senate records.
Saguisag recalled how no one wanted to take up the chairmanship of the body as early as 1987. If other committees have at least 10 members, the ethics panel has only 7 members.
“There were discussions about committees, of which I was totally ignorant of. There was bitter fighting for choice committee chairmanship. So I told Uncle Jovy (Salonga), to give me a committee no one wants. Ethics, it turned out,” he said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, committee chair from 2001 to 2004, shared the same view. The lack of interest in the chairmanship of the ethics panel is something expected, as politicians, who want to get public support, comprise the committee.
“It did help that there was vigilance on the part of the media and concerned citizens. The ethics committee after all is still composed of politicians who are sensitive to public opinion,” Pangilinan told Rappler.
In the recently concluded 16th Congress, the Senate opted not to constitute the ethics panel at the discretion of the leadership. It comes without saying that the complaints filed were practically shelved.
Out to protect each other?
There are notions that the ethics committee hardly acts on complaints to protect colleagues – something that the former senator recognized.
This observation is not without basis. Since the 8th Congress after the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, the Senate has formally censured only two senators – former senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Heherson Alvarez.
In 2010, the Senate, acting as a committee of the whole, recommended the censure of former Senate President Manuel Villar for his alleged involvement in the C5-Daang Hari controversy. The chamber, however, failed to act on it as Villar’s allies did not show up, thereby lacking quorum.
While two of the gravest penalties are suspension and expulsion, the chamber has not gone that far against erring colleagues. The most they did was reprimand peers. (READ: Only 2 senators reprimanded by Senate in 30 years)
For Saguisag, the perception is “by and large true.” It is, after all, tough to judge peers, “especially if one lives in a glass house,” he said.
“Human nature not to want to judge one’s own peers. May even be your seatmate. It’s pakikisama, out of mixed motives. You try not to make enemies,” Saguisag said.
But Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, the present chair of the ethics panel, denied such views are true.
Sotto himself faced ethics complaints for his alleged links to drugs and for supposedly plagiarizing parts of a blog post of US blogger Sarah Pope in his speech during the controversial Reproductive Health bill debates. Both were shelved.
“No such rule. We will call a spade a spade under my watch!” Sotto told Rappler in a text message.
The senator called such notion “misinformation”, when asked why such sentiment against the committee exists.
“I don’t know. Perhaps because no committee report was brought to plenary. Yung iba prospered kaya lang inaabot ng sine die adjournment. Misinformation na rin siguro (Others prospered but already reach sine die adjournment. Maybe, it’s also misinformation),” he said.
While agreeing with Saguisag, Pangilinan said the difficulty of passing judgment on colleagues is not exclusive to the Senate. It is, he said, applicable to any industry, media included.
“There will always be hesitation on the part of a sitting senator to pass judgment and impose discipline on a fellow senator. It’s very much the same for other professions I would think,” Pangilinan said.
With all this, he claimed that a “vigilant citizenry and media” are still key to ensuring public accountability.
At present, the ethics committee has met only once to approve the rules that would govern their panel. It has yet to decide if it has jurisdiction over the complaint filed against De Lima. (READ: Senate ethics panel: ‘Difficult’ for us to decide on complaint)
“‘Di madali sa amin na decision talaga (This is really a difficult decision for us). Besides, the decision earlier by the committee, if ever we decide on anything that will be related to the complaint, we will make sure all 7 members are present,” Sotto told reporters after the committee’s organizational meeting.
Aside from Sotto, the other members of the committee are Senators Panfilo Lacson, Gregorio Honasan, Grace Poe, Risa Hontiveros, Francis Escudero, and Loren Legarda. Sotto said Senator Manny Pacquiao, Duterte’s ally, might replace Legarda who is busy with budget deliberations as finance committee head.
Lacson and De Lima had a bitter history, as the former justice secretary launched a manhunt against Lacson in 2011 for being implicated in the murder of publicist Salvador “Bubby” Dacer and driver Emmanuel Corbito.
Pacquiao is a staunch ally of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has linked De Lima to illegal drugs.
Hontiveros, meanwhile, is an ally of De Lima, having run together under the banner of the Liberal Party.
Honasan, Poe, Escudero, and Legarda belong to the same bloc, as they are deemed allies of Sotto.
It remains to be seen how the case’s merits, politics, and internal dynamics will come into play in deciding the complaint against the fiercest critic of the extremely popular President.
As Sotto said, the ethics committee is “unlike any other” congressional panel, as it decides on the “situation and stature” of an elected senator.
“The last thing I would want to do is to unilaterally decide on anything in the committee on ethics. It’s a very serious and different type of subject. It’s unlike any other committee in the Senate that the chairman can be given full authority on everything. In this case, we’re talking about the situation and the stature of a member of the Senate,” he said. – Rappler.com