THE Senate was off to a tumultuous start in the 17th Congress as the leadership of Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III was tested by a fracas triggered by hearings on extrajudicial killings that have been on the rise since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in late June.
The President’s political nemesis, Senator Leila de Lima, pushed to investigate the killing of thousands of suspects in Duterte’s war on illegal drugs, but the hearing quickly turned to his record as Davao City mayor, when a self-confessed hitman, Edgar Matobato, tagged him as the mastermind behind the dreaded Davao Death Squad, believed to be responsible for the death of more than 1,000 people—suspected criminals, political opponents, and personal enemies--between 1998 and 2008.
This was old ground for De Lima, who had unsuccessfully investigated Duterte when she led the Commission on Human Rights and when she was Justice secretary under the Aquino administration.
After presenting Matobato on Sept. 15, De Lima was voted out as chairwoman of the committee on justice and human rights by 16 of her colleagues. She was replaced by Senator Richard Gordon, an independent, who was more sympathetic to the President.
Most of De Lima’s colleagues in the Liberal Party stood by her, except for Senator Joel Villanueva, who was indicted for malversation, graft and falsification of public documents in the pork barrel scandal when De Lima headed the Department of Justice.
Live radio and TV coverage exposed the public to bickering within the Senate, even among those belonging to the same political party, such as Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Antonio Trillanes IV. Both had run unsuccessfully for the vice presidency, with Cayetano running alongside Duterte.
Both members of the Nacionalista Party, Cayetano and Trillanes traded insults on several occasions over the alleged involvement of Duterte in the summary executions.
At one point, Trillanes even turned the microphone off while Cayetano was grilling Matobato.
Trillanes later used a privilege speech to seek a Senate investigation into the Davao Death Squad and Duterte’s alleged involvement in the summary executions in Davao.
Taking the side of De Lima, Trillanes also called Gordon a lackey of Duterte and accused him of leading a cover-up.
In the end, Gordon said his committee found no basis for the claim that the summary killings of drug suspects were state-sponsored.
He also said the DDS was “a media creation” whose existence was not proven during the hearing, virtually clearing Duterte of the Davao killings.
In his committee report, Gordon also recommended the filing of charges against Trillanes and De Lima for their behavior during the hearing.
During the hearings, Gordon had accused De Lima of “material concealment” of information that Matobato had been charged by the National Bureau of Investigation for the 2002 kidnapping with ransom of Pakistani national Sali Makdum.
This prompted a denial from De Lima and a demand for an apology that was never given.
“Since no apology is forthcoming, I am walking out,” De Lima said. She left the Senate floor, an act Gordon attributed to “cowardice.”
The hearing in October was then suspended after dragging on for 13 hours.
The 17th Congress also saw suspension orders served, first on Senator JV Ejercito and then on Villanueva.
But before Christmas, the Sandiganbayan acquitted Ejercito of graft charges over the alleged diversion of P2.1 million in city funds to purchase high-powered firearms for the local police.
The anti-graft court’s Fifth Division, comprised of Associate Justices Roland Jurado, Rafael Lagos and Maria Theresa Arcega, granted Ejercito’s demurrer to evidence¸ noting the absence of evidence to prove firearms supplier HK Tactical Defense System Inc. enjoyed any special advantages.
Ejercito had gone on leave even if the Senate leadership had not imposed his suspension as the Ombudsman had ordered.
Later in the year, the Ombudsman ordered Villanueva dismissed from government service over his alleged involvement in the pork barrel scam when he was still a congressman.
Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said Villanueva was guilty of grave misconduct, serious dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the interest of the service.
Villanueva, who garnered the second most number of votes in the senatorial race last May, served as a party-list representative for Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) from 2001 to 2010.
The Ombudsman directed the Senate President to carry out the dismissal order, but the Senate adopted the opinion of its legal office, which said that the Office of the Ombudsman cannot order the dismissal of a senator.
Villanueva welcomed the Senate legal opinion, but said he hoped the Ombudsman would look into the “glaring evidence” of his innocence.
The Senate adjourned with only one bill—postponing the election of youth representatives--passed into law, and another one—the P3.35 trillion national budget for 2017--close to becoming a law.
Despite this low output, Pimentel said the Senate’s achievements were the reason for its high approval rating in the September Ulat ng Bayan survey of the polling company Pulse Asia.
“In the centennial year of our beloved institution, the public gave us one of the highest net satisfaction ratings recorded since these surveys started in 1988 [at 52 percent as of September 2016],” said Pimentel.
“This is an affirmation that the public trusts us to deliver on the President’s promise of a meaningful change in the lives of our countrymen,” he added.
Responding to critics who cited the meager output, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said the Genearl Appropriations Act is the single most important piece of legislation every year.
“Everything in the government is in the budget. All laws need it. The government needs it [budget] in order to move,” Sotto said.
“If you talk to legislators, they will tell you that even though nothing will be passed, as long as there is the budget, the government can work,” he added.
Sotto, who is about to finish in 2019 his 4th term as senator, also said that the first six months of a new Senate is always marked by the low number of laws passed.
“Except in 1987, they’re almost the same. Others were even worse than the 17th Congress because they failed to pass even the budget. So, they had a re-enacted budget,” Sotto said.
Senator Loren Legarda, finance committee chairwoman, said this budget is in line with the President’s 10-Point Socioeconomic Agenda and ensured that funds for the necessary services such as universal health care and free tuition in all state universities and colleges, are available.
But Senator Panfilo Lacson said he is contemplating filing a challenge of the budget before the Supreme Court because the spending plan is rife with pork barrel, which the justices have declared illegal.
Most of the pork, he said, was inserted into the budgets of the Public Works and Highways, Social Welfare and Development, Education, and Health departments.
“These are the sources. These are favorite parking places, parking areas of pork,” said Lacson.
The senator earlier questioned the P9 billion in lump sum funds inserted in the budget of the DPWH central office.
He said the amount “smelled” of pork barrel.
Since the start of the 17th Congress last July 25, Pimentel said senators filed a total of 1,283 bills and 253 resolutions, which are in different stages of legislation.
It also adopted 33 resolutions, most noteworthy of which is Senate Resolution No. 33, concurring in the ratification of the Articles of Agreement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which Pimentel said provided “the government access to more sources of funding so we can usher in a golden age of infrastructure for the Philippines.”
“We opened the First Regular Session of the Senate of the 17th Congress by crafting an 11-point legislative agenda to guide us to change. And this early, we can see results,” he said.
He said the Senate would continue pursuing priority bills under its 11-point legislative agenda such as the bills on Personal Income Tax Reform, the Amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering Act, as well as the bills granting emergency powers to address the traffic crisis, and the end of contractualization, among others.
“We will spur national discussions even on controversial measures because that is the essence of democracy. And we will continue, in our 101st year, to lay the foundations for the future of an independent, responsible, and responsive Senate,” Pimentel said.
“We will continue to build a Senate that is truly a pillar of democracy and the pride of the Filipino people,” he added.
Pimentel noted that the Senate also held various hearings on the most pressing issues of the day, including the “process of shifting the country to federalism.”
Lacson said attention to the budget had delayed other bills, which could easily be passed when sessions resume in January.
“We were focussed on the budget so we almost did nothing. Remember the deliberations were morning until nighttime. No legislation moved other than the budget. So I think fairly and this is an objective assessment, we did well, these last last six months,” he said.
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by manilastandard.net readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of manilastandard.net. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.