POSTSCRIPT / June 6, 2002 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Ruckus in Senate, House is nothing but a gang war

LESSONS FROM SENATE: The antics of our honorable senators, later joined by their gangmates from the House of Representatives, have just given us taxpayers more reason to conclude that:

  • The Senate is not any better than the House of Representatives in terms of the members’ fitness for public office or the quality of their legislative output.
  • Except for specific duties assigned by law to each chamber — such as the treaty ratifying function of the Senate and the budgetary initiative of the House — there is costly duplication in the work of the two chambers.
  • The tasks of Congress can be done more expeditiously and more economically by a unicameral body.
  • Since shifting to a unicameral body is not possible without amending the Constitution, what we can do is confine the present Congress to a shorter work calendar, say 240 working days, and pay its members only for legislative work done during that period.

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NOT A UPPER HOUSE: Everybody, including media, should stop referring to the Senate as the Upper Chamber or the Upper House, a term that implies a moral and intellectual ascendancy or superiority in relation to the House of Representatives which is sometimes called Lower House.

“Upper Chamber” also conjures up an image of the Senate being “higher” than the House in a legislative hierarchy — something akin to the judicial setup where petitioners go up from the local courts to the Court of Appeals and then on to the Supreme Court in an ascending, elevating process.

Looking at the Senate membership, a discerning observer will note that our senators are no better than our congressmen. Not that senators are meant to be better, but the institution, thanks to its illustrious members of the past, has cultivated an image of statesmanship, intellectual superiority and a more refined political culture.

The latest ruckus in the Senate — where one restless member who still has to decide what he is again changed his political cape and seduced the more ambitious members of the minority — shows what kind of low lives our masses have sent to the chamber.

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SMALLER, NOT HIGHER: If the term “Upper Chamber” merely refers to the physical location of the Senate (in relation to the House) in the old Congress, it may apply. But that it was carried over to present usage is unfortunate.

In the old legislative building facing the muni-golf links in Intramuros, the Senate was on a floor above the House. Reference to the Senate then as the “upper chamber” was descriptive of its relative location in the building. (If we’re not mistaken, the edifice is now being used as the National Museum.)

But the term is inappropriate in light of the present Senate’s renting space in the GSIS building at the reclaimed area on Roxas Blvd. and the House being settled some 10 miles away in the Batasan building near the stinking dumpsite in Payatas, Quezon City.

If we want a modifier for their names, although this is not necessary, we might call one the Bigger and the other the Smaller House with reference to their membership of 24 for the Senate and more than 200 for the House.

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THIRD & FINAL CHAMBER: The redundancy in the work of the two chambers is no guarantee of efficient operations, better legislation or quality bills.

In fact, the shoddy coordination of the two chambers has given rise to a virtual third chamber — the bicameral committee that meets, sometimes outside Congress, to thresh out any discrepancy between the Senate and the House versions of an approved bill.

We used to call this the conference committee because of its being the mechanism for the two chambers to meet in conference to iron out their differences.

But in practice, the conference committee functions not only as a third chamber, but as the final chamber. There have been cases when a substantially new bill was written by the committee containing provisions not found in either the Senate or the House version.

This usurpation of legislative function by a mere creation of Congress has given rise to charges of fraud, machinations and other serious misgivings, but strangely the complaining members of Congress always end up miraculously mollified.

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TIGHT SKED FOR SOLONS: Audit the operations and the annual output of Congress, and you will note that its assigned legislative task could be done in the 240 days that we have suggested.

The country is already awash with laws. What we need badly is not more laws but no-nonsense enforcement. And if we have to pass new laws, it is merely to update old ones and to introduce measures addressing new problems (example would be laws governing e-commerce).

After passing the annual national budget, urgent bills certified by the President for the current program of government and a few major measures, there is hardly anything else of substance that senators and congressmen have to do by way of legislation.

Somebody should whip them into line.

The misuse of their extra time, aggravated by their warped sense of mission, has resulted in their frittering valuable time and resources in endless legislative investigations, junkets, pork barrel contracting, and such glaring abuse of their office.

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BUCK-PASSING ADS: We have noticed the publication, meanwhile, of big newspaper advertisements on who is/are to blame for the soaring price of electricity.

The ads are ineffective, and are in fact offensive, because they are clearly political messages meant to clear certain parties while downgrading or heaping the blame on those who are less guilty of having caused the rising of power rates.

The ads taken out by the Kilusan Kontra sa Kalabisan ng PPA (referring to the purchased power adjustment that doubles electricity bills) are attempts to shift the blame squarely to the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), former President Cory Aquino and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

We noticed that the ads clear an unlikely tandem: former Presidents Erap Estrada and Fidel V. Ramos who lately have been blaming each other for the proliferation of independent power producers (IPPs) and the bloating of PPA charges as a result of onerous IPP contracts and the forced payment of overpriced ungenerated and unused power.

There is an unusual silence on the part played by Napocor in mismanaging the entire power system resulting in runaway rates.

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MERALCO A VICTIM: Actually the blame is all over in varying degrees, but the allocation of responsibility as the ads suggest is skewed. For one, President Ramos must take center stage when those who had contributed to rising power costs are to be paraded.

In the case of Meralco, it has been established that the utility firm is just collecting PPA for the National Power Corp. (Napocor) and other minor IPPs supplying it the electricity that it retails to end-users in its franchise area.

Meralco is not entirely blameless, but to replace Napocor with Meralco as the culprit is a bit overdoing the passing-the-buck game.

The utility firm is actually in a position to substantially lower its electricity rates if only Napocor would allow to operate at optimum levels the two IPPs supplying a small part of Meralco power. And the ads would blame Meralco and not the Napocor?

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UNKIND TO HIS PATRONESS: While it is true that President Aquino had contributed to the power crisis of the early 1990s by her mothballing of the nuclear power plant in Bataan and her abolition of the Department of Energy, there was the intervening administration of Mr. Ramos, the anointed of Aquino, to take care of the slack.

We merely used Cory Aquino to remove Mr. Marcos. If somebody else, say Salvador Laurel, ran for president against Mr. Marcos, the dictator would have stayed on despite his ill health and later be replaced by his wife Imelda and possibly their children as they came of age.

The situation that Cory Aquino inherited was one of massive dislocation. The country was in shambles. The economic setback was something that a six-year term could not correct. It was expected that presidents who would come after her, Mr. Ramos for instance, would continue the rehabilitation.

It is unkind of Mr. Ramos to have blamed his patroness Cory Aquino as if she was the root cause of the problem of overpriced electricity. For him to now be cleared by the unusual ads of a motley group of partisans is perverse.

But we think the confusion is deliberate. Confuse the enemy, as they say.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 6, 2002)

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