Amante: The congressional express

ON the day Congress voted to extend martial law in Mindanao by a year, broadcast journalist Lynda Jumilla-Abalos tweeted: “If only our trains were as smooth and swift as the congressional railroad.” She has a point. Our legislators have become so adept at hopping on bandwagons and railroading some discussions that it’s a mystery they can’t seem to make our transportation system much better.

In the case of martial law, most members of Congress couldn’t show their support fast enough. A mere three days after President Rodrigo Duterte asked for it, 240 legislators voted to extend martial law until Dec. 31, 2018. Only 27 opposed, among them four senators and Cebu City Rep. Raul del Mar, who said there was “no more justification and no more reason for extension of the existing martial law.”

When the President first declared martial law in Mindanao last May 23, 2017, he cited as his grounds the Maute group’s terrorist attack and the threat of ISIS. The 1987 Constitution allows martial law to enable the government to deal with “an invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it.” That was supposed to be for only 60 days, in keeping with the Constitution’s limit, but Congress extended it until the end of 2017.

For this second extension, the President mentioned an additional ground, the supposedly “intensified rebellion” of the New People’s Army, as one reason Mindanao will continue to need Martial Law until the end of 2018. “Should another martial law be sought, it should be examined on its separate merit,” said del Mar, in explaining his “no” vote.

Politicians as popular as this President, however, can afford to ignore merit. And it didn’t hurt that just a week before he requested this extension, the Supreme Court upheld its decision that Duterte’s declaration of martial law was consistent with the Constitution.

A common refrain among the lawmakers who voted to extend was that their colleagues from Mindanao were almost unanimous in their support of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. So how could they vote against extending it, when their Mindanao colleagues probably knew the situation better than they did? What’s not clear is how well the votes of Cebu’s 10 district lawmakers represented the views and served the best interests of their constituents. Those who deferred to their Mindanao colleagues’ positions seem to be saying that their fellow lawmakers’ opinions weighed more than those of the people they were supposed to represent.

It wouldn’t be a surprise for majority in most districts to favor extending martial law in Mindanao until the end of 2018. As of late September, 54 percent of 1,500 respondents told the Social Weather Stations that they agreed with Congress’ decision to extend martial law for the first time. Only about 28 percent disagreed. As expected, support was highest among respondents in Mindanao, of whom 64 percent agreed with the first extension.

Still, it would have been inspiring to hear that our lawmakers had taken the time to listen to their constituents’ views. It might have made the discussion more instructive, less driven by the false Dutertard-against-Dilawan binary that we’ve been mired in for these past two years. I would like to understand why the lawmaker who represents my district voted the way he did; whether he and his like-minded colleagues have thought of ways to prevent the abuse of vast powers they’ve authorized the President and the military to exercise. I doubt that I will get a response, but I shall go ahead and try.
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