Beyond legislation: Powers, roles of Philippine lawmakers

Jodesz Gavilan

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Beyond legislation: Powers, roles of Philippine lawmakers
Congress plays a vital role in exacting accountability from other branches in government

MANILA, Philippines – As the campaign period starts for midterm elections, the power of legislators becomes highlighted even more.

In their effort to lure voters, candidates aspiring to become members of the Senate or the House of Representatives invade the airwaves with campaign promises and self-promotion efforts. More often than not, these candidates aim to make themselves household names, resorting to various tactics just to get their coveted seat.

Beyond the elections, we see these legislators fight it out in plenary over proposed bills. But beyond the debates that often turn controversial – and in some cases, circus-like – what are the powers of members of Congress? What can they do?

Making and debating measures

Members of Congress, essentially, are the primary makers of laws.

According to Section 1 of Article VI of the 1987 Philippine Constitution: “The legislative power shall be vested in the Congress of the Philippines which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives, except to the extent reserved to the people by the provision on initiative and referendum.”

There are several types of measures Congress can create, including bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions.

Legislators grouped in committees conduct hearings and consultation meetings to improve or pass a proposed bill. Those outside the group can also discuss any proposed bill in plenary before it is voted upon. 

These debates during plenary are very important because they ideally give a chance for others to scrutinize the proposed bill before it is passed. Once approved, a law can affect not just the government’s function but the life of every Filipino. It is also vital that it adheres to the Constitution.

A bill then becomes law when it is signed by the president.

Other responsibilities

Aside from lawmaking, Congress is also given several powers and responsibilities in certain situations. 

Congress’ role in exacting accountability is crucial as legislators play a part in checking on possible excesses by the executive and judicial branches of government.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution provides many instances when Congress can invoke this power: 

1. Congress has the power to remove from office impeachable government officials, including the President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, members of constitutional commissions, and the Ombudsman. The House of Representatives can tackle impeachment complaints and submit the resolution setting the Articles of Impeachment. The Senate, meanwhile, decides on cases of impeachment in a full-blown trial. (FAST FACTS: How does impeachment work?)

2. Congress has the “sole power to declare the existence of a state of war,” according to Section 23 Article VI of the Constitution. A vote of two-thirds of both Houses, voting separately, is needed.

3. Congress can revoke the President’s proclamation of martial law by a vote of at least a majority of all members of the Senate and the House. If requested, Congress can also extend the period of martial law beyond the mandated 60 days. (READ: Martial Law 101: Things you should know)

4. Congress may authorize the President to exercise powers to carry out a declared national policy “for a limited period and subject to restrictions” in times of war or other national emergency,

5. Congressional committees can conduct hearings “in aid of legislation” on various issues that affect the nation and release a report based on findings. For example, the Senate committee in August 2018 conducted a hearing on the TRAIN law’s impact on inflation amid rising prices of commodities.

IMPEACH. Congress has the power to remove impeachable gov't officials. File photo by Rappler

6. Congress is also involved in the national budget process. It can decide whether or not to add or reduce a government agency’s budget, effectively overseeing budget appropriations and being on guard against suspected corruption. This, however, may lead to several clashes, as seen in the 2019 budget that was just passed on Friday, February 8, after months of delay.

7. Congress, through the Commission on Appointments, can approve or reject some key appointments made by the president to government agencies.

8. Congress needs to concur with any amnesty granted by the president, according to Section 19, Article VII of the Constitution. A vote of majority of all members is needed.

9. Congress is heavily involved in starting charter change. It can either convene into a Constituent Assembly (through a vote of three-fourths of all members) and propose both amendments and revisions, or call for an election of members of a Constitutional Convention (vote of two-thirds of its members).

Efforts of a legislator

The late senator and health secretary Juan Flavier, in his pamphlet, “Now That You Are a Senator: An Introduction to Organizing the Work of a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines,” which he used to distribute to neophyte senators, summarized the roles of legislators in 4 “main overlapping but slightly different functions”:

  • Lawmaking
  • Public advocacy
  • Constituency building
  • Government oversight

There are a lot of expectations of a legislator that go beyond what legal documents such as the Constitution states.

According to Flavier: “A senator cannot do everything, for everyone, every time. A senator must be selective. The choice of matters to attend to – as well as the manner in which that choice is made – demonstrates a senator’s wisdom.”

The upcoming campaign period will see 62 senatorial candidates do their best to join the winning magic 12. The lower chamber, meanwhile, has no more than 250 representative seats that should be filled come May 13, 2019.

Will members of the Senate and the House of Representatives adhere to their roles and fulfill their responsibilities? – 

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.