“Pag nagpakilala na congressmen, ‘wag dalhin sa presinto...”
-- Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, Sept. 18, 2017 during a hearing of the House transportation committee
HOUSE Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, the congressman from Ilocos Norte’s first district, may have puffed and preened when he said last Monday (Sept. 18) that House members should not be arrested for traffic violations. He told Dept. of Transportation officials not to delay congressmen on their way to sessions in Congress.
A video clip and story of his pronouncement drew heavy flak in social media, with such comments as: “Is he above the law?” and “From wang-wang to immunity” to “Height of arrogance and entitlement” and “Your House of Representatives, folks.”
Only one congressman was talking, though he’s the second highest official in the House; his word is often what rules. And yet he was right about the immunity from arrest.
Immunity is there
The Constitution says (in Art. VI, Sec. 11) that “a senator or member of the House of Representatives shall, in all offenses punishable by not more than six years imprisonment, be privileged from arrest while the Congress is in session.”
A traffic violation is often penalized by a fine, rarely a jail term, unless it’s accompanied with a higher offense. And it rarely happens that a national lawmaker is detained over a traffic incident. Most of them have a driver who faces the traffic cop and one word that his boss is congressman or senator makes the violation disappear.
So what was wrong with Fariñas telling DOT officials about the lawmakers’ immunity from arrest, along with immunity from being questioned for speech or debate in Congress? If that right places them above the law, it’s the Constitution, the fundamental law, that has placed them. Not their fault.
No special breed
Last Dec. 8, 2008, when Sen. Tito Sotto was facing backlash over material that he (or his speechwriter) plagiarized for a Senate speech, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile came to his defense, saying the immunity was given “not because we are a special breed” but because “the sovereign people” gave it.
Why the fallout against Fariñas then? It could be due to the way he asserted immunity from arrest.
Enrile and Fariñas asserted, separately, the entitlement in their respective meeting rooms in Congress. Yet Enrile didn’t cause a ripple but Fariñas sent shock waves across the internet.
Like a bully
Swiftness and immediacy of public response nowadays only partly explains it. What must have set off the explosion of adverse comments was that Fariñas sounded like a bully who showed off his power when the lowly officials he was talking to had already recognized the lawmakers’ VIP status.
It could be because of similar displays of superiority in recent national incidents, such as the snafu over witnesses from Ilocos Norte who were jailed for refusal to testify. Another form of “wangwang,” which then president Noynoy Aquino said, was not limited to the noise from vehicles’ sirens.