Senate of the Philippines

Senate debates 101: What rules, traditions do senators follow?

Mara Cepeda
Senate debates 101: What rules, traditions do senators follow?
Emotions tend to run high when senators debate on contentious issues. How do they maintain order in the chamber?

Debating on the most pressing issues confronting the nation is part of the job of a legislator. 

Deliberations within the halls of Congress allow lawmakers to scrutinize the provisions of a bill, challenge its arguments, and improve the measure so it can better address the needs of Filipinos. 

Debates are also a chance for senators and representatives to show off their oratory skills and their expertise on issues they champion. 

Verbal tussles among legislators thus tend to become controversial or sometimes even circus-like, especially when a contentious topic is being discussed or when emotions are running high inside the session hall. 

The public got a glimpse of how heated debates in the Senate can be between May and June 2021, when several senators of the 18th Congress ended up clashing over a number of issues – from a new boxing agency being pushed in the middle of a pandemic, to the attendance of senators during the hybrid plenary sessions

What guidelines do senators follow during their debates? Here’s what the Rules of the Senate under the 18th Congress and the chamber’s traditions have to say: 

When do debates usually happen?

Senators can engage in debates both at the committee level, where panel members first thresh out the provisions of a bill, and in the plenary, where the entire chamber can join the deliberations. 

In the Senate plenary, there’s an official period of interpellations for bills and other measures. This is the time when senators ask questions after the the chairperson of the committee that passed the bill sponsors it on the. 

Senators who wish to interpellate the bill’s sponsor will have to submit their names to the Senate leadership, who will then schedule them based on who asked to be listed first. 

This list can be rearranged by the Senate Majority Leader, depending on the agenda of the day and the availability of the senator concerned when called to speak. 

Senators can also debate with each other when amendments to a bill are being proposed or when a member delivers a privilege speech and agrees to be asked by colleagues.

How long can debates go?

Debates can last for a few minutes or even hours, spread out across several session days, depending on the number of interpellators and how contentious the bill is. 

Rule XXVII of the Senate rules states that the bill’s sponsor can consume “as much time” as he or she needs to explain the contents and purposes of the bill. 

Subsequent speakers for or against the bill can then consume two hours each for debates. If a senator wants to debate about a proposed amendment, each speaker can consume not more than 30 minutes. 

But these time periods are not cast in stone. Section 78 of the same rules says that the Senate may reduce or extend the time for each speaker with the consent of a majority of senators present “when by reason of the nature or urgency of the bill the public interest so requires.”

Can a senator have notes and get help from the staff?

Yes. Senate rules do not prohibit senators from bringing hard copies of their speeches and notes during debates. These documents actually help the senator give accurate information during the debates, like the proposed budget of an agency down to the last centavo. 

The staff members of a senator are usually on standby near him or her to hand out notes and other information when necessary. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, when the Senate had to conduct hybrid sessions to observe physical distancing, senators working remotely can sometimes be heard consulting with members of their staff who are located just outside the frame of their cameras. Senators also consult via messaging or teleconferencing apps.

But one can tell if senators are prepared for the debate based on how quickly and orderly they are able to go through their notes to give the information being asked by a colleague.

Legislators who did their homework would be able to answer queries about the implications of other laws or Supreme Court decisions on the bill being tackled on the floor. 

Senators often earn admiration points – both from their colleagues and the public – whenever they are able to cite data as well as explain the nuances of a law or jurisprudence from memory.

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Powers and Duties: Senator in the Philippines

Powers and Duties: Senator in the Philippines
What kinds of acts or language are considered unparliamentary?

The Senate’s Rule XXXIV says any acts and language “which offend a senator or any public institution” shall be deemed unparliamentary. 

Senators are not allowed to use “offensive or improper language” against a colleague or another public institution. 

If a senator violates this rule, a point of order may be called against him or her. This senator should then take a seat if he or she happens to be inside the plenary hall.

If the point of order is sustained by the Senate President or the presiding officer, then the senator cannot continue speaking without the consent of the Senate. 

A motion can be made to permit the senator to speak again and this has to be resolved without debate. 

Upon the recommendation of the committee on ethics and privileges, the Senate may punish any member for “disorderly behavior.” A senator may be suspended up to 60 days or even expelled upon the concurrence of two-thirds of the entire Senate membership. 

How do senators ease tensions during heated debates?

Senators may end up raising their voices when they clash over controversial provisions. When this happens, other senators usually interject to stop the heated exchange from escalating. Some legislators even crack jokes.

In most cases, the Senate President or the presiding officer would temporarily suspend session and talk to the senators concerned to forge a compromise.

Can a senator struggling to answer questions move to terminate debates?

Technically, yes, but this is not a tradition being followed by the Senate of the Philippines. 

The period of interpellation in the Senate is suspended only when the bill’s sponsor and the interpellators are already satisfied with each other’s answers.

The veteran Senate minority leader Frank Drilon said as much on May 20, 2021, when newbie senator Bong Go tried but failed to end debates on bills renationalizing hospitals

“One of the traditions of the Senate since time immemorial is that the cloture is never invoked in the debates. Never, never,” Drilon said. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.