Jackie Enrile

Senate Breakdowns and Policy Failures

After admirably discharging its duties during the impeachment trial, the Senate has committed a number of unfathomable policy blunders.

Following the conclusion of the impeachment trial of the chief justice in May, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s net satisfaction rating shot up by 17% pts to 65% in the Social Weather Station’s August survey. It was only two points shy of President Noynoy Aquino’s net satisfaction rating of 67%.

The same survey showed that Filipinos gave a net satisfaction rating of 67% (74% satisfied, 7% dissatisfied) to the Senate as an institution. This was an improvement from the 49% rating it received back in May. Such was the public’s admiration for the stature which the senate president lent to the proceedings of the impeachment that his son, Congressman Jackie Enrile became a leading contender in the race for a senate seat in 2013.

If that same survey were to be conducted today, you would doubt very much whether the senate would continue to enjoy such strong support from the public. A series of own-goals coming from its members may have just brought those ratings crashing right back down to Mother Earth. And the reason for this? Well, let us just put it down to institutional fragility. Let me explain.

First came the Scarborough Shoal incident that featured Senator Antonio Trillanes crossing wires with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario over the defusion of tensions with China. Having been in Beijing at the time, the junior senator claims to have been approached by Chinese officials to act as a “back channel” to the Aquino administration.

Trillanes claims credit for the withdrawal of Chinese navy vessels from the area, when in fact as the New York Times reported, it was the US that intervened. Be that as it may, this put the junior senator at odds with the Senate President who engaged with him in a verbal tit-for-tat on the floor of the upper house resulting in a walk-out by the impetuous Trillanes.

Not only that, but by using the contents of Ambassador Brady’s notes to grill the former lieutenant about his dealings in China, the senate president could have been in breach of diplomatic protocol himself by divulging the contents of such confidential minutes.

Then came the Cyber Crime Prevention Act, a law which is under Judicial Review for sections that appear to impinge on the bill of rights enshrined in the constitution. According to Raissa Robles, the final version of the Senate and the bicameral conference committee is to blame for this. The onerous provisions inserted by some senators on things such as “cyber-libel” gave it a distasteful element to those who value freedom of expression.

How such an appalling piece of legislation could have garnered the support of such legal eagles in the senate as Ed Angara, Pia Cayetano, Chiz Escudero, Koko Pimentel and Miriam Santiago (only Senator TG Guingona stood opposed to it on third and final reading) boggles the mind.

This of course came on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto’s revolting display of hubris after being exposed for plagiarism. Sotto absolved himself by claiming that the internet from where he had lifted significant sections of a speech he gave against the Reproductive Health Bill was not subject to the rules of intellectual property.

Sotto happily claims ownership of the anti-libel provisions of the Anti-Cyber Crime Act saying he had intentionally placed them there in retaliation to his critics in social media who he claims need to be silenced. President Aquino, who in the past has shown sensitivity to public criticism by the media was glad to sign it into law. Since then, the Palace has admitted to flaws in the act, which they say need mending.

Then, finally, comes the episode of Senator Ralph Recto’s report advocating a watering down of the sin tax bill and hampering the Aquino government’s fiscal and health reform agendas in one fell swoop. Just days after releasing his report to the Senate, Recto, who had been responsible for crafting the expanded value added tax under President Gloria Arroyo to head off a fiscal crisis and who suffered at the polls for it, quickly retracted his submission. This has left the single most important revenue measure of the administration this year in limbo.

His sponsorship of the committee’s findings at the Senate was widely criticised both in the mainstream and social media. Senator Recto has offered to resign his chairmanship of the powerful committee of ways and means claiming that he had been deserted by the main proponents of his bill, namely the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Finance Department.

This trilogy of mistakes and poor judgements demonstrates how haphazard the senate has become in performing its core function of legislation. Having been locked down for half a year performing jury duty for the impeachment trial, the senate seems to have lost its deft touch when it comes to policy making. From foreign affairs and national security to criminal law and fiscal policy, the senate has had such a lacklustre performance of late.

The administration claimed that the impeachment trial would not impede its legislative agenda, yet the slow progress of such crucial bills involving reproductive health, freedom of information, whistleblower and witness protection, fiscal responsibility, K-12, health reform, and so much more, seems to belie this.

With “more of the same” literally speaking being on offer at the 2013 senate race (as in sons, daughters, blood relatives and in-laws of incumbents and former incumbents being put forward as candidates), you would not expect either the quality or the quantity of outcomes to improve. What is lacking is a sound process of policy development from conceptualisation and analysis to consultation and deliberation, all the way through to decision, implementation and evaluation.

They say the quality of institutions is critical to our development. Well, that may be true, but for the quality of our institutions to improve, we also need the composition of players within those institutions to diversify. If we simply recruit into such bodies people of the same class and gene pool, should we ever wonder why we get the same dismal outcomes?