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The Philippine Senate has been, and will always be, a farce of democracy

LET’s face it, and I hope a senator engages me in a debate over what many thinking Filipinos really believe but don’t say, in fear of these political demi-gods, or because in their calculation they could be of some help to them in the future.

The Philippine Senate in its present form is a farce of democracy, and one of the most useless institutions of our republican system, on which we taxpayers spend some P5 billion a year.

To understand how much of a useless and failed institution the Senate is, we have to know how the idea of a Philippine Senate evolved, why it had seemed to be a good idea during the founding of our Republic.

Our United States (US) colonizers in their dogma against one-man rule (after all, their country was founded in rebellion against the ultimate one-man rule, the British Crown), had our country ruled not just by a governor general but a collective of respected people called the Philippine Commission.

While the governor general of course was the equivalent of our President now, he had to heed the commission’s views on how the colony should be governed.

Thus, the First Commission of five men was headed by Dr. Jacob Schurman, Cornell University president, with such members as Charles Denby, former minister to China, and Dean Worcester, a zoologist by academic discipline but who had become the foremost expert on the “Philippine Islands” during that time. The Second Philippine Commission started to include Filipinos considered by the Americans to be respected, powerful business or political leaders or intellectuals such as Benito Legarda (who had been a member of President Aguinaldo’s Cabinet) and T. H. Pardo de Tavera, a physician from an old elite family who wrote several books on Filipino culture.

Body of experts
In gist, the American colonizers’ Philippine Commission was supposed to be a body of experts who had the wisdom, expertise and knowledge to help in the efficient running of the colony.

While the essence of the democracy that the Americans wanted the Philippines to adopt was a government by representatives of the people, they knew that such a system could descend into mob rule, or rule by demagogues who had the expertise to fool the masses – as even the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates argued democracy to be.

So, in 1916 under the US Congress’ Philippine Autonomy Act that would be a transitory phase to becoming an independent republic, the representatives of the people were elected by provinces (later subdivided into districts) called the House of Representatives.

But, the Americans wanted another body to be a check on the House of Representatives, which they conceived to be a body of experts similar to the Philippine Commission. So, the idea of a commission metamorphosed into the Senate, the upper chamber of the Philippine Legislature and after independence, elected by and representing 12 senatorial districts, or groups of provinces. (After independence, this system, modelled upon the US system of senators each representing states, was junked with each of the 24 senators elected by all voters.)

Congressmen hate the terms “upper and lower” chambers of Congress, and boast that theirs is the bigger chamber, and the Senate the lower chamber. These terms of altitude — derived from American usage — however do refer to the quality of their members, with each chamber populated by different sorts of people. The lower house in the US, because its members are elected by smaller populations (congressional districts) and every two years, are seen as closer to the people, while the upper house elected by state legislatures every six years, represented the higher elites and established interests.

So here, the members of the House of Representatives developed to be the lower rung of the political firmament — mostly provincial bosses, such as the Singsons, Sumulongs, Floirendos, Belmontes who aren’t eloquent enough, aren’t interested in national issues, or prefer the life of a local boss to aspire to be Senators.

Higher circle
The Senate became the higher circle of more accomplished politicians of national stature in the first three decades of the Republic, members of the economic elite who became political leaders such as Gil Puyat, Fernando Lopez and Manuel Roxas; national government officials who had spectacular careers such as former justice secretary Jose Diokno (who went after the first foreign oligarch here Harry Stonehill; legal luminaries such as Claro Recto and Jovito Salonga, or congressmen who had stellar careers in the lower house for several terms and developed a regional following, such as Ferdinand Marcos and Benigno Aquino.

In a sense, the Senate was the upper chamber whose members lived up to the etymology of the term, from the Latin senex meaning old, with Senatus being the Council of Elders in the Roman empire. This Council of Elders purportedly was a check on the lower house ruled mainly by local mob leaders.

The Philippine Senate since the end of martial law is far, far from being a Council of Elders. The members mostly get to the post not by their outstanding track record in law, politics, or any other discipline that would be useful in building a nation. They got to be senators by sheer “name recall,” by the power of a media that had not existed when this system of government had been set up.

Do you think Francis Pangilinan became a senator because of his legal career or because he was the husband of superstar Sharon Cuneta? Joel Villanueva because of his Tesda performance or because of his father’s name-recall, and tax-free wealth as religious leader? Sherwin Gatchalian because of his track record as Bulacan congressman and mayor, or the wealth of his billionaire father? Ralph Recto because of his being a serious economist and his Recto name, or because he is the husband of another superstar, Vilma Santos? Grace Poe because of the skills she learned as an immigrant to the US, or because she was the daughter of the country’s most popular action star, and because her run for the presidency made her a household name?

Risa Hontiveros because of her accomplishments as Akbayan party-list congressman or because she always was by the side of president Benigno Aquino 3rd who seemed to have been smitten by her that he poured tons of campaign funds, or even Smartmatic electoral trickery, for her use?

And Bam Aquino, Sonny Angara, Nancy Binay, JV Ejercito? Who would they be without those family names?

Exhibit A
I respect Manny Paquiao for his colossal achievements, boldly stowing away to Manila from a life of poverty in a far-flung province to become one of the world’s greatest boxers. But do you really think he should be a member of the Council of Elders, when the only two books he has read is his checkbook and the Bible whose origins and nature he is totally ignorant about , and his brain most probably damaged by years of being hit thousands of times by fists?

And, of course, the Exhibit A of a farce we call the Senate: Antonio Trillanes 4th, who threw the idea of democracy to the dustbin when he launched coup attempts against a democratically elected president. What’s even worse is that he was so stupid in those clumsy attempts they failed within hours, with Trillanes meekly surrendering, a cop ignominiously pulling him to the police van by his belt. And this pathetic yet arrogant man becomes a senator of the Philippines?

Contemplate on Trillanes, and you’ll come to the incontrovertible conclusion: something is so terribly wrong in the institution of a Senate.

And going by the polls, nothing’s changed, the same people by sheer name recall, many just because they always appear in media simply because of their posts, will be our Council of Elders.


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