‘A senator must act with integrity’

'The objective is to perform as a good senator. The choice of matters to attend to demonstrates a senator’s wisdom.'

Editor’s Note: Former Senator and Health Secretary Juan Flavier and his staff used to distribute a booklet to help neophyte senators navigate the chamber. It was titled, “Now That You Are a Senator: An Introduction to Organizing the Work of a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines.” As the 16th Congress welcomes a new batch of legislators, we are posting excerpts from the booklet with Flavier’s permission.

Welcome to the Senate.

I must admit that, when I was first elected in 1995, I was not prepared to be a senator. Nor had I been trained to be one. In fact, I became a senator by quirk of fate: I had developed an unusually high name recall as secretary of health, and before I knew it, I was a senator.

My first question was simple: What does a senator do? I did not aim to be the best senator, but I certainly wanted to be a useful one.

There was no one answer. There were many versions. So I decided to learn more in a systematic way.

I called together a group of people for a brainstorming session. The group included chiefs of staff of senators, academicians, social scientists, public administrations, etc.

This booklet is the result of that interesting exercise. It has guided me through the learning process during my first few years.

In welcoming you to the Senate, I thought you might find this booklet useful.

The objective is to perform consistently as a good senator. Life after the Senate is a matter to be faced in the future – after the 6-year term of office. Whether one plans to return to private life, run for re-election, try for higher office or move to another government post, the task at hand remains the same.

A senator must act with competence and integrity, and for the benefit of the nation. These notes were prepared in aid of this objective.

Roles of a senator

A senator’s major role is as legislator. As an elected public official representing the aspirations of the greater majority, a senator is expected to participate actively, not only at the committee level, but particularly during floor deliberations.

Experience has shown that the extent and the intensity to which a senator plays this role hinge largely on his or her intended career path. For instance, if at the outset a senator has decided to serve for only one term, then he or she is most likely to be more assertive and “combative” during debates and deliberations even to the point of becoming unpopular.

Since senators have the entire nation as their constituency, they tackle issues of national concern. A senator, therefore, is seen as an instrument towards consensus building on major issues/concerns affecting Filipinos nationwide.

As such, a senator is expected to be knowledgeable on almost all issues. People usually ask a senator for an opinion on even the most trivial issues.

Responding to both geographical and sectoral constituencies is another function of a senator. Unlike the congressmen whose constituency is limited to a specific district, senators are expected to address problems that either encompass the entire Filipino people, or affect specific geographical or sectoral bounds.

Each senator defines his or her unique role in relation to – among other things – personal ideas, the conventions of the legislature, specific demands of the times, and interactions with other national leaders. A senator performs at least 4 main overlapping, but slightly different functions:

1. Lawmaking

A senator files bills that could become laws, and contributes to the progressive formulation, enrichment and refinement of laws from filed bills as a member or chairman of committees and as a participant in Senate plenary deliberations.

Chairmanship of a Senate committee is an especially important aspect of lawmaking. The committee a senator heads is a powerbase in legislative work.

In the area of concern covered by the committee, the senator expands his authority and influence through the following:

a)  Determining the specific bills and items the Senate will take up. This depends on the bills the senator reports out of the committee;

b)  Shaping the public reception of the bills in the committee. This is determined by how the public hearings are set up and publicized;

c)  Specifying the initial formulation of the bill to be taken up in the Senate plenary deliberations he or she may have introduced;

d)  Participating as part of the Senate contingent to the bicameral conference committee

In order to exercise these influences on legislation, the senator as committee chairman:

a)  Decides which bills to keep in the committee and which bills to attend to and report out to the Senate floor;

b)  Decides on the number, schedule, setting, participation and conduct of the public hearings of the committee;

c)  Presides over committee hearings and meetings;

d)  Initiates and conducts investigations, inquiries and studies on matters of interest to the committee, in aid of legislation.

2. Public advocacy

A senator speaks up publicly and influences people. A senator explains, sells proposals, supports or opposes ideas, comments on issues, and promotes causes. A senator does this via the Senate floor, in the office, before audiences or via the media. A senator issues media releases or is quoted by other observers.

3. Constituency Building

A senator represents groups of people and their notions of what the whole nation stands for. A senator listens to groups articulating their views, consults with many people, and keeps in touch with an ever-changing circle of allies and sympathizers.

A senator refers, recommends, or endorses on their behalf and puts them in touch with others who can promote their causes.

4. Government Oversight

A senator meddles with the rest of the government, primarily the executive and the judiciary. He or she looks over the shoulders of public officials, monitors their public acts. The senator identifies issues and concerns of public interest, maintains his dialogue with officials and informants, and periodically uses his or her office to call attention to one thing or another. 

Over and above these, a senator also:

a)   Manages the Countrywide Development Fund (CDF) [Editor’s note: This is now called the Priority Development Assistance Fund or PDAF]

b)   Creates impact on the implementation of programs and projects

c)   Attends to social obligations such as speaking engagements, inaugurations, weddings, etc.

It is also incumbent upon the senator and his or her office staff to get acquainted with the Senate rules and regulations, both written and unwritten. Also, it is advisable to request a briefing from the heads and/or technical staff of the different executive agencies on their major activities.

Particular attention may be given to agencies whose areas of concern are within the scope and interest and expertise of the senator.

Managing the Roles

There is synergism among the senator’s 4 main functions. One starts where the other ends. The better a senator does in one area, the stronger his or her impact is on another.

The demand on a senator’s time, energy, and influence will always be greater than the available supply. Constituents, allies, enemies, interest groups, and all sorts of people will make a claim on the senator’s attention, effort, and political clout. It will be physically taxing.

So a critical skill the senator will have to personally exercise is that of prioritizing. There seems to be 4 levels of effort a senator can exert:

a)  At the highest level or effort a senator can initiate, lead or champion an issue or concern;

b)  A senator can significantly influence or affect an issue by his support or opposition;

c)  A senator can simply go along with how an issue is resolved without extra effort;

d)  A senator can be indifferent and trade off an issue in favor of others more important to him or her.

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. – Rappler.com 

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