Seares: Slow Senate? ‘Independent republics’

IF you quantify the work of Congress by dividing its budget for a year (about P13.05 billion for 2018) by the number of bills enacted into law (10 last year), you’ll have some idea in matching lawmakers’ performance against the cost of their upkeep.

Only four bills were signed by President Duterte when the Senate and the House of Representatives recessed for the holidays in 2017. Six other bills though were sent to the president before yearend.

Pegged on the 10 laws Congress produced, that would be depressing performance report for any taxpayer to read.

Flawed estimate

That would be deeply flawed cost estimate though. It assumes that the work of Congress consists only of crafting would-be laws. It forgets there are other tasks that occupy legislators, not the least of which are taking care of voters and preparing the campaign chest for the next elections.

Even on lawmaking, one can’t judge performance on the number of enacted laws alone. Consider the number of bills filed and the process they go through before they reach the president’s desk for signature. That’s a lot of work.

How Congress works

In the House alone, 5,800 bills were filed on the first and second year of the 17th Congress. These bills went to committees that review and rework on them. They had to undergo three readings before they were approved and sent to the Senate.

The public doesn’t see much of the work in hearings and consultations, only glimpses in high-profile cases where the lawmakers strut and preen, obviously not signs of rigorous labor. Same thing with the Senate, only that the pace is inordinately slow.

‘Thinking’ chamber

Which annoys House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who complains that most of their approved bills are stuck in the Senate. Where, in Mona Lisa fashion, they just lie and languish until the next Congress when they’re re-filed and go through the same cycle.

Senate President Koko Pimentel retorts that the Senate is the more “critical” chamber, the “thinking” (“nag-aaral”) part of Congress. Which a number of House members must resent since it assumes that most of the 297 “kongresistas” file and approve their bills without much thought.

The Senate usually puts the brakes on rash legislation, especially when it involves national interest. The House has more bills of local application (renaming of government buildings and highways) but it’s not limited to parochial issues. Thus Alvarez frets over the death penalty bill that the House rushed to approve only to be stalled in the Senate.

‘Complicated’

Lawmaking is designed, as then Rep. Lani Mercado-Revilla noted in 2012, to be “a long and complicated process.” The bicameral structure may be modified to unload the Senate of those bills that affect only local constituency. The death penalty bill deserves a rigid review but not a bill renaming a school or expanding a road in remote areas.

Besides, as Sen. Franklin Drilon once pointed out, senators are “independent republics,” 24 of them who have different opinions and “cast a moist eye on the presidency.”

National interest

Alvarez may also remember the nature of the Senate as a body and the senators as individual members. A reputation of the Senate being, ah, independent, patriotic and faithful to the Constitution and national interest has never run out of defenders. Sen. Dick Gordon and other Duterte allies bristled when they were called lapdogs of the president.

The problem is the entire Congress. Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth from the lawmakers? Maybe if the senators know when to be an independent republic -- when it is not for individual or party interest but the national interest.
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