A problem like the Senate

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IT MUST have been the maroon robes—and the fact that the senators of the Republic, with one outrageous exception, were on their best behavior in the glare of TV lights during the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona early this year.

But the developing public impression of Senate gravitas, commitment to truth and justice, and good sense during that time—akin almost, though not quite, to the respect the Senate used to enjoy during the days of Claro M .Recto, Jose P.Laurel and Lorenzo Tanada—is fast giving way to collective disgust.

It’s not only because of Vicente Sotto III’s disastrous attempts at justifying his presence in that body. In only a little over a month, among other amusements Filipinos have been subjected to an extended , acrimonious, and meaningless verbal exchange between two senators (Antonio Trillanes IV and Juan Ponce Enrile), during which both claimed foreign policy and national security expertise.

Prior to that teacup tempest, Filipinos had had to suffer the self-idolatry and screechy accents of another senator (Miriam Defensor Santiago), who, for some reason, is still in the country despite an appointment to the International Criminal Court. Santiago did recently describe the Cyber Crime Prevention Act of 2012 as unconstitutional—but that only shows that the Act is so seriously flawed any dimwit of a lawyer can see through it.

Via his alleged “memoirs,” Enrile has since been trying to whitewash his role in the atrocity we know as the Marcos dictatorship, and along with it, to paint those years of terror as a legitimate response to threats to the Republic as exemplified by that “ambush” on his car Ferdinand Marcos used as the immediate excuse for placing the entire country under martial rule.

At about the same time, the country also heard another senator (Francis Escudero), who’s as verbally slick as a snake oil salesman, as saying that he didn’t notice the inclusion of libel in RA 10175, which he voted for. Escudero, who claims to be for the decriminalization of libel, is not incidentally running again for the Senate.

Enrile, who was conveniently absent during the Senate vote on the bill, has also gone on record as in favor if it, since, after all, not only was he one of four senators who, according to journalist Raissa Robles, filed similar bills (the others: RA10175 sponsor Edgardo J. Angara, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and Ramon Revilla Jr.)—he was also Marcos’ chief martial law enforcer, after all.

Vicente Sotto III, who apparently doesn’t know when to stop talking, was all this time either claiming that passing off someone else’s work if that someone is “just a blogger” is morally and legally acceptable, or that translating someone’s speech from English to Filipino makes the speech one’s own. While whining like a schoolboy that he had been cyber-bullied, Sotto was making sure that criminal libel was included in the provisions of RA 10175 so he could get back at his critics, many of whom expressed their sentiments via blogs and the social media platforms in the Internet.

Over TV interviews, Sotto has also threatened to work for the decriminalization of libel, but only so, by his own admission, he could call news media people and bloggers names.

How do you solve a problem like the Senate? Former senator and now UP professor of public administration Orlando Mercado says the decline of the Senate began with the election into it of entertainment media personalities like Sotto, and even more aptly, of Joseph Estrada—first to the Senate, and then to the Vice Presidency and the Presidency. Ergo, as the by now conventional wisdom claims, not voting for an actor or a comic would assure the country a better Senate—and perhaps better laws.
But Mercado’s assessment is only partly true. Sotto might have been an entertainment media celebrity, but except for Ramon Revilla Jr. and Lito Lapid, no one else fits the bill. Angara, the principal sponsor and advocate of RA10175; Enrile, who is supporting it; Santiago; Escudero, who approved the bill; and Franklin Drilon, who has said that the country doesn’t need an FOI law—are all lawyers. Of course Marcos Jr., another pro-RA 10175, is neither actor, celebrity or lawyer, which suggests that name recall alone can get anyone elected to the Senate.

The one saving grace of the Senate during the Cyber Crime Prevention Act controversy, Teofisto Guingona III, who was against the bill, is a lawyer too, but his profession might have been less a factor in his opposition to RA10175 than his family background, his father Teofisto Jr. being a consistent partisan of the Bill of Rights.

The long and the short of it is that not voting for entertainers and celebrities won’t guarantee a better Senate, or, since we’re on the subject of better governance, a better House of Representatives—or for that matter, a President better than Aquino III.

Through his support for RA 10175 and its libel provision, and his hostility to a Freedom of Information Act, Aquino has demonstrated how much he detests free expression and press freedom. Aquino actually thinks critical and free media are liabilities in his administration’s quest for the foreign investments he and his predecessors since 1946 have mistakenly assumed would develop this country. And he still has until 2016 to perpetuate that and other illusions, with no prospect in sight for someone better after that.

The key question in this country’s governance is not only the possession of a vision of the future and how to achieve it, but also the commitment of its officials, especially its legislators and President, to the Bill of Rights. An IQ of more than two digits would also help.

As for the Senate, lining up to replace the non-reelectionist senators in 2013 are mostly their relatives, some of whom have admitted that they do constitute a dynasty, but who have argued that it’s qualifications that count.

Precisely. The problem with dynasties is not that the sons, daughters, wives, etc. of those who have been in office forever have the same names. It’s their having the same interests, and, because of that, qualifications’ taking a back seat to genes. Among the examples: Aquino III’s cousin, and Jejomar Binay’s daughter, both of whom are running for the Senate on the strength of their surnames. As a result, few Filipinos still think elections are about rational choice, but about who can best sing “Dahil sa Iyo,” demonstrate the latest dance craze, or look pretty on stage.

For the coming elections, I suggest that name recall—remembering this or that creature because of his or her father, husband, wife, cousin, son, uncle, aunt, or whatever—be the basis for NOT voting for that particular candidate. Maybe then we can begin to solve the problem so obviously in evidence not only in the Senate, but in the entire freak show we charitably call government as well.

(BusinessWorld)

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