POSTSCRIPT / December 17, 1998 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Impeachment in RP also a partisan game

IMPEACHMENT as being played out by the US Congress in the case of President Bill Clinton; has been reduced to an unfortunate game of political numbers.

The constitutional process has lost its moral impact as a mechanism for removing a president who has violated his solemn oath.

Voting in the House judiciary committee was along party lines, with Republicans mechanically voting yes on the four articles of impeachment and the Democrats voting no.

Nowhere is deliberation, such as to be expected in a deliberative body acting on a historic issue, evident.

The same partisan voting pattern can be expected in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives where the committee report will be thrown.

But in the Senate, which will hear the impeachment charges, the Grand Old Party is not likely to muster the required two-thirds vote to impeach the President. It’s a cut-and-dried process that will leave Clinton bloodied but still hanging on to the presidency by his fingernails.

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THE partisan character of impeachment reminds us of the recall process instituted under the Philippine Local Government Code wherein non-impeachable elective officials are removed in midterm.

Under our recall system, a governor or mayor surrounded by lower officials who belong to the other party can be ousted by his political foes by the expedient of gathering enough signatures from opposition officials in the area.

A governor can be removed by a simple majority of a so-called Preparatory Recall Assembly composed of all mayors, vice mayors and sanggunian (council) members of the towns and cities in the province.

A town or city mayor can be similarly removed by a majority of a recall assembly composed of all punong barangay (village chiefs) and sangguniang barangay (village council) members in the city or town.

There is no need for elaborate charges. All that’s needed is for the majority in the recall assembly to cite “loss of confidence” and the poor target of the operation is removed!

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IF a governor fails to carry his slate at the polls and does not hold in his pocket (because they belong to the opposition party) a majority of the mayors, vice mayors and sanggunian members in his province, he could be a dead duck.

The same thing goes with a mayor in a city or town where a majority of the barangay (village) officials and members happen to belong to the party of his opponent who refuses to concede defeat at the polls.

His detractors only have to say that they have lost confidence in the governor or the mayor, and then proceed to railroad his recall.

In effect, an official installed by the people by direct vote can be removed by his political enemies by simply mustering a majority of the lower elective officials in the area. Obviously, there’s something wrong in the system.

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UPON recall of an official, a special election is scheduled where he runs again together with others who may want to contest his continued stay in office.

The process — including the gathering of signatures and the election itself — is supervised by the Commission on Elections.

A loser in a regular election can thus work out a return bout without having to wait for the next regular election. All he has to do is gather enough signatures of the other officials in the area to recall the elected executive.

Usually signatures are gathered on partisan, and sometimes material, considerations. Given our damaged culture, this is fraught with dangers.

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TWO recent cases of recall — that of the governor of Bataan and the mayor of Caloocan City — illustrate how a well-meaning mechanism for removing undesirable officials can be abused by partisans.

The Bataan governor was recalled by a majority of lower officials in the province who happened to be partisans of his opponent from the ruling administration party. The ousted governor was forced into a return bout, but eventually lost in a controversial count.

In Caloocan, the mayor was pummeled in a relentless, expensive demolition campaign in media (a sad commentary on media corruption) before he was recalled with the gathering of enough barangay signatures.

In the following special elections, however, the mayor won over his tormentors. The people who had elected him to office in the first place put him back in a second election that was, in hindsight, expensive and unnecessary.

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THE same partisan color stains our impeachment process. Patterned after the US model, impeachment in this country is also initiated in the House, with the Senate later sitting to try the President or whoever is the constitutional official being impeached.

Impeachment is clearly a game of numbers, specifically of partisan numbers. It hardly has anything to do with the evidence brought to bear on the respondent official’s case.

That is the reason why any attempt to impeach a president — even one guilty of wholesale culpable violations of the Constitution — is doomed if his party controls both chambers of Congress.

In another case where the impeachable official is theoretically nonpartisan, such as one high up in the judiciary, if he has the full support of the ruling party or has dossiers on key members of the legislature, he is also practically untouchable.

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ASIDE from the President, the other officials who can be removed only by impeachment are the Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, members of the constitutional commissions (Civil Service Commission, Commission on Elections, and Commission on Audit) and the Ombudsman.

A simple majority in the committee investigating the impeachment complaint is required to forward the case to the full House. The vote of only one-third of all the members of the House is needed to affirm the articles of impeachment and send them to the Senate.

As in the US, the Senate tries and decides the impeachment case. When it is the President who is being tried, the Chief Justice presides over the trial, but will not vote.

The only possible punishment of impeached officials is removal from office and disqualification to hold any public office. Once removed, however, the official is open to prosecution, trial and punishment.

The principle underlying impeachment is found in Section 1 of Article XI (Accountability of Public Officials) of the Constitution, which says: “Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

Note the addendum “…and lead modest lives.” That will be taken up in another column.

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