Tito Sotto
Tito Sotto

The newly elected president of the Senate has been accused of plagiarism, of disrespecting women, of cluelessness about the most pressing issues of public concern, and of ignorance of the Constitution.

During the debate on the Reproductive Health Bill, Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, who rose to his present exalted rank thanks to his credentials as a celebrity in a mindless noontime television program, used without proper attribution portions of someone else’s blog post in his speech against it, and translated for inclusion in it parts of a speech by Robert F. Kennedy.

In the Commission on Appointments hearings on the confirmation of the appointment of Judy Taguiwalo to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in 2017, he disparaged the retired University of the Philippines social work professor for being a single parent, and later called it a joke.

During the hearings by the Senate Committee on Public Information and Mass Media on a bill that would penalize with fines and imprisonment the dissemination of “fake news,” his comments in support of that bill suggested limited understanding of Article III Section 4 of the Constitution which protects freedom of expression, of speech, of the press, and of peaceable assembly.

These all matter, but none carries more weight than his uncertain commitment to the defense of Upper House independence. Despite that uncertainty and his other seeming failings, his election to the Senate’s highest post was endorsed by 17 of his fellow senators, and he was elected by the majority on the strength of the belief, among other arguments, that he could “unify the Senate.”

That argument presumes that the Senate is divided. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the division is not solely based on narrow political and other interests, but more importantly, along differences over the issues that confront this country and its people in these troubled times.

Democratic governance is after all realized through reasoned discourse between the governed and the officials to whom they have entrusted their sovereign powers, as well as among those in government supportive of certain measures and those opposed to them.

Among the issues that confront both citizens and their chosen officials in the uncertain and problematic present is the Senate’s Constitutional prerogative to sit as an impeachment court to try justices of the Supreme Court and other impeachable officials.

Crossing party lines, the majority of the senators, including former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, who belongs to President Rodrigo Duterte’s PDP-Laban Party, asked the Supreme Court in a resolution to review the ouster through a quo warranto petition of Chief Justice Ma. Loudes Sereno.

That initiative was significant. The Supreme Court decision has not only undermined the Senate’s rightful role in the removal from office of the Chief Justice and other impeachable officials, and is quite possibly unconstitutional; it has also diminished what little remains of judicial independence.

The Senate had earlier clashed with the House of Representatives “supermajority” over the latter’s insistence that both houses of Congress should sit as one body in considering amendments to the Constitution. The Senate correctly opposed the House’s interpretation of the Constitutional provisions on the amendment process through a constituent assembly. If implemented, that patently manipulative scheme would devalue, in fact reduce to meaninglessness, Senate participation in the process, its present members being no more than 22 compared to the House’s 292.

Equally crucial is the need to defend the Senate’s treaty-making power, which has been challenged by President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration that he is withdrawing the Philippines’ ratification of the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) which the Senate ratified in 2011.

What is at stake in these issues as well as others that confront the Senate is its capacity to function as a body co-equal with, and independent of, the executive, whose control over the House and over the Supreme Court majority has made the danger of the return of authoritarian rule real. That can happen with or without the nation-wide declaration of martial law or the imposition of a misnamed and misleading “revolutionary” government, the demand for which Mr. Duterte’s trolls, media mercenaries and other partisans have recently revived after a brief hiatus.

Despite his being one of only two members of Mr. Duterte’s PDP-Laban party in the Senate — the other is boxer Manny Pacquiao — Aquilino Pimentel III’s brief watch as Senate President was characterized by at least some attempt to preserve the Senate’s institutional autonomy.

Every other issue against Sotto pales before that of whether he will surrender what remains of the upper house’s independence to his friend and ally Rodrigo Duterte, in whose party he originally ran for public office, and from which, he has himself pointed out, he has never resigned.

The signs are not very encouraging. The principal sponsor of the 2002 Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act (RA No. 9165), and former chair of the Dangerous Drugs Board, Sotto has been an enthusiastic supporter of the brutal and dubious anti-drug “war” of his friend and ally Mr. Duterte, despite the extrajudicial killings that have most characterized it and its at least debatable effectiveness in addressing the drug problem.

In 2012 he inserted into the final version of the Cybercrime Prevention Act a provision raising the penalties for online libel by one degree, in direct contradiction of the need to enhance free expression by decriminalizing libel.

Echoing regime preferences, Sotto has also expressed support for the restoration of the death penalty. He opposed the Reproductive Health bill on the mistaken assumption that it sanctions abortions, and has been silent on the ICC issue. He was not a signatory to Senate Resolution 738 which urged the Supreme Court to review its ouster of CJ Sereno through a quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida with the obvious support of Mr. Duterte.

He earlier expressed doubts over the validity of extending martial law in Mindanao by 60 days in 2017, but eventually supported its extension for an entire year until the end of 2018.

Sotto’s election to the Senate presidency by the majority took place in the context of the sustained assault by the executive branch on the supposedly co-equal judicial branch of government. It suggests recognition on the part of Mr. Duterte and company that, despite the residence in it of dimwits, political opportunists and a Bible-thumping fanatic to whom attendance in the Senate is a second priority, the continuing detention of one of its number, Duterte critic Leila de Lima, and for all its other failings, the Senate could still challenge the regime march to despotism and tyranny — hence the consequent need to replace its leadership with someone even more pliable than Pimentel III. His seniority and experience have been cited as among his qualifications for the post. But Sotto even more fits the bill for a Senate President whose first priority would be collaboration with the regime.

In his statements upon assuming the Senate presidency, Sotto promised to protect that body from “attacks and criticisms,” presumably from whatever source, but mostly from citizens, journalists, and social media activists, whom he has accused of bullying him, but all of whom have the right to monitor and criticize those who govern in their name in this rumored democracy.

While Sotto did say the Senate would be independent during his watch, he also promised Mr. Duterte its “cooperation.” Whether the first can survive the second will depend on what he means by either term — and how far being cooperative can be practiced without surrendering the Senate’s freedom from executive intervention, manipulation, and, as the entire planet witnessed in the case of Leila de Lima, some of its members’ demonization and harassment.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Senate website.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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