POSTSCRIPT / May 25, 2004 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Obstructing the canvass can only lead to anarchy

PLENARY OR COMMITTEE: The big question being debated in Congress and outside is whether the national canvass of votes for the president and the vice president should be done by a plenary joint session or by a bicameral committee.

We think whichever is the most expeditious and transparent mode is best for the country, considering that a further delay in determining the winner for president will only feed the anarchy that some sore losers want to set in.

It has been two long weeks since the votes in the May 10 elections were counted, yet we still do not know who won as president. Every day that passes with the question unresolved worsens the creeping public disorder.

Let’s get on with it. Let us accept whoever wins, as determined in the canvass that is about to begin but is being stalled every step of the way.

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THE CHARTER SAYS…: As usual, we begin with the Constitution in our search for a way out of the programmed confusion.

Article VII, Section 4, says: “The returns of every election for President and Vice President, duly certified by the board of canvassers of each province or city, shall be transmitted to the Congress, directed to the President of the Senate. Upon receipt of the certificates of canvass, the President of the Senate shall, not later than thirty days after the day of the election, open all the certificates in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives in joint public session, and the Congress, upon determination of the authenticity and due execution thereof in the manner provided by law, canvass the votes.

“The person having the highest number of votes shall be proclaimed elected, but in case two or more shall have an equal and highest number of votes, one of them shall forthwith be chosen by the vote of a majority of all the Members of both Houses of the Congress, voting separately.

“The Congress shall promulgate its rules for the canvassing of the certificates.”

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LAYING DOWN RULES: That charter provision should be clear enough for most reasonable men, but it seems not so for some politicians who do not want to see defeat at the polls.

Note that the Constitution says that “the Congress, upon determination of the authenticity and due execution thereof in the manner provided by law, (shall) canvass the votes.”

It does not tell Congress in detail how to conduct the canvass, except that “Congress shall promulgate its rules for the canvassing of the certificates.”

Promulgating the rules — actually simply re-adopting old tested rules — is precisely what the two Houses of Congress are doing despite the obstructionism.

As for “authenticity and due execution” which will come into prominent play in the appreciation of the certificates of canvass (COCs), their precise legal meaning has been established in many decisions of the Supreme Court. There should not be too much debate on that.

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220-PLUS COOKS?: Now that the Congress is adopting again the same rules that had governed with satisfactory results the national canvass for the two past presidential elections (1992 and 1998), some politicians are loudly objecting.

The rules have always provided for a joint committee of 14 members (seven from each chamber of Congress, with representatives from the opposition) doing the dirty work of processing the certificates of canvass.

But some opposition lawmakers said this detail should be handled directly by the entire joint session itself.

Imagine more than 220 politicians of various shapes and colors meeting in joint session and together opening, appreciating and counting the votes? Can anything be more confusing and more time-consuming?

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COMMITTEE WORK: Congress has always functioned though committees that do the dirty work.

The committees submit to the plenary their recommendations that are then acted upon by the entire chamber. The plenary body can, and sometimes does, reject any recommendation of a committee.

It should be clarified that under the proposed rules being debated, the joint committee is not empowered to “canvass” the COCs by itself.

Note that Rule VIII, Section 13, actually says that the joint committee shall “ preliminarily canvass the votes…” The function of officially canvassing is retained by Congress sitting in a joint public session.

Like all legislative committees, the joint canvass committee has only recommendatory functions. It submits its findings and recommendations. The committee proposes and the plenary Congress disposes.

The president-elect and the vice president-elect will not be proclaimed by the joint committee but by Congress itself.

What is irregular about that?

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PUBLIC SESSION: Section 4 that we cited above mentions not just a “joint session” of Congress but a “joint public session.” It will be an open, transparent event, not an executive or closed-door process away from public view.

The media and the usual kibitzers will be there. Political parties will have representatives. Candidates will have watchers and lawyers who will protect the interest of their clients. It would take magical powers to railroad a presidential proclamation.

The opposition will be represented in the joint committee itself.

But all this must be governed by rules. The rules that have served us well during the canvass in past presidential polls, including the 1998 elections that saw the victory of Joseph “Erap” Estrada, have proved to be satisfactory.

Suddenly somebody wants to revamp the rules?

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AMENDMENT: The House of Representatives yesterday amended only one rule, Rule VIII pertaining to the joint committee.

Section 19 of Rule VIII says: “The joint committee… shall decide any question involving the certificate of canvass by a majority vote of its members, each House panel voting separately. Any such decision shall be subject to approval by the joint session, the Senate and House of Representatives voting separately. In case the two Houses disagree, the decision of the President of the Senate will prevail .”

Yesterday, the House amended that to dilute the Senate president’s power by saying he shall decide the question in consultation with the Speaker.

The refinement is welcome. It will be reflected in the copy to be submitted to the Senate for the latter’s action.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 25, 2004)

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