A 'distracted' Senate in Duterte's first 100 days

MANILA, Philippines – In his first 3 months at the helm of the nation, President Rodrigo Duterte has rocked the country (and the world!), and the Senate is no exception.

The phrase “checks and balances” between branches of government may have gone to the extremes, with the seemingly unrelenting conflict between the President and Senator Leila De Lima. (READ: Duterte: De Lima will surely go to jail)

A few weeks into office, the President launched a tirade against the senator, who, as former Commission on Human Rights chairperson and justice secretary, launched an investigation into his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings. (READ: De Lima on Duterte: I will 'resist' until 'last pulse in my veins')

From fiery words to personal attacks, the conflict escalated so quickly that in less than a hundred days, two inquiries had been launched in both houses of Congress, alongside crucial deliberations on the 2017 budget and other legislative hearings.

Political analyst Aries Arugay said all these have taken a toll on the Senate and its primary function of legislation. Arugay said the chamber has so far been “distracted” by the squabbles.

“It’s distracted. There is a huge legislative agenda, but the Senate cannot really help itself but do all these investigatory hearings that often do not aid legislation,” Arugay told Rappler.

The priority measures of the administration seemed to have drowned in all the bickering of some senators and officials outside the institution. Case in point, Arugay said, is the probe into the extrajudicial killings under the Duterte government.

“The Senate is looking more as a forum of the issues of the day than a lawmaking institution,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Ralph Recto shared this sentiment, saying the spat between the President and De Lima has not helped the chamber. Instead of focusing on the work, senators' attention have become divided.

“It provides a lot of entertainment value, the Duterte-De Lima whatever you want to call that. But we’re hearing the budget already. I made a lot of points in the budget, looking forward we can focus on it,” Recto told Rappler.

But Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III denied the distraction, saying that the Senate committees are “busy” conducting hearings and committee reports.

“Maybe they are [distracted]. I'm not. Most of us aren’t. Because the committees are working and busy conducting hearings and committee reports, and the budget will soon be on the floor,” Sotto said.

Among the priority bills of the administration, the Senate has so far closely tackled only two: the granting the President emergency powers to address the traffic crisis, and the postponement of the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan polls to 2017.

In the House of Representatives, where the Duterte-backed probe against De Lima is being prioritized, the hearing on the emergency powers bill is still in the early stage.

2 committee report in 100 days

During the first 100 days of Duterte, only 2 reports have been submitted by the committees – a step closer for a bill to becoming a law.

These are the reports on the bill postponing the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan polls (Committee Report Number 1), which is a priority of the administration, and the bill granting security of tenure for all casual and contractual government employees (Committee Report Number 2).

Committee Report Number 1 was filed on August 30, 2016, and has passed 3rd and final reading in both chambers of Congress as of September 14. It is now awaiting the President’s signature.

Committee Report Number 2 was filed just recently, on October 5, and has yet to be sponsored on the Senate floor.

In comparison, during the first 100 days of Duterte's predecessor President Benigno Aquino III, 3 committee reports filed, two of which were eventually signed into law.

 

During the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2004 – at a time the legitimacy of her electoral victory was being questioned – the Senate filed only 1 committee report, the resetting of the date of regular elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

It was filed on September 6, 2004, and was signed into law just 15 days after.

Independent?

Barely 3 months into the Duterte administration, the Senate already had a major reorganization. Voting 16-4, senators ousted De Lima as chairperson of the committee on justice and human rights. Her allies said it was an “unprecedented” move. (READ: Senators: De Lima ousted for being 'biased,' anti-Duterte)

While senators and Malacañang denied the executive's hand in it, De Lima and her allies believed otherwise, saying the independence of the chamber might have been compromised.

Arugay said the so-called independence of the Senate only works in theory. 

“Independence of the Senate is only good on paper. In the realm of politics, the influence of the Chief Executive looms large,” Arugay said.

“The political reality is that separation of powers is a principle, not a practice. Politically speaking, the Senate is always influenced by Malacañang,” he added.

Unlike Aquino, who then had several party mates in the chamber, Duterte has so far only two: Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III and Senator Manny Pacquiao; and another staunch ally in his former running mate, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano.

Duterte himself admitted in his 1st State of the Nation Address that majority of lawmakers, senators included, did not support his candidacy.

Despite this, he was able to achieve what he wants. It is not surprising, said Arugay, as most lawmakers would want to be on the good side of any sitting president – and, at this time, a highly popular one. (READ: Duterte marks 100 days with 'very good' rating – SWS)

“Because of their own personal interests. It is not in your political interest to mount a challenge on a very popular president. There are many benefits – you get to ride on that very popular Duterte train, the President's budgetary powers, and you need him for your pet bills,” he said.

“For some individual members of the Senate, the more influential the executive is, the better for their interests and ambitions,” he added.

With all these into play and about 5 more years to go, one could not say yet where and how the Senate would stand on key issues and legislation. (READ: Duterte and the Senate: Of allies, critics, and in-betweens)

While the popular Duterte enjoys the support of the majority now, a weak political party system could change that any minute.

“Given party discipline is very weak, loyalty to the president is flimsy,” Arugay said. “So we might have a totally different situation next year or in the coming months.” – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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