Why independence of Congress is important now more than ever

There are three branches of the government in the Philippines. They were established as independent bodies for the purpose of checks and balances. If one branch abuses its power, the other branch should be there to prevent it.

This is why these branches of the government are treated as co-equal. Not one is above another. The Constitution is the only document that binds all these branches together.

We have seen just how damaging it is for a country to have one branch acting superior above all others. This was during the Martial Law years. During that time, the House of Representatives existed, but didn’t necessarily check the president for his abuses. Those who dared to speak out against him were immediately silenced. Even the court systems ruled in favor of the president’s policies most of the times.

As a result, we have years of unprecedented powers bestowed upon only one branch of the government. This would not have happened if only the other branches were forceful enough to curb the powers of the executive branch.

We must learn from history

Although the country was under Martial Law for just about 10 years (1972 to 1981), it seems like we are bound to repeat the mistakes we have made in the past. We are entering another chapter in the history when the president seems to have total control of the legislative branch of the government.

This is not to say it only happened during this administration. In fact, it has already become a norm in Congress to jump ship and be a member of the president’s party. The moment Duterte won the presidency by almost a landslide, several elected congressmen eventually decided to join the supermajority. Some others even decided to drop their previous party and join the president’s PDP-Laban.

There are advantages in having a Congress that is in line with the sitting president. Whatever the president has promised to deliver during the campaign can be easily passed via legislation in the Congress. This means that the infrastructure plans and other projects the president wants to accomplish can be easily done.

The downside is that even the most controversial bills are immediately passed. Just a few days ago, we have witnessed how it was easy for the ruling coalition to pass the death penalty bill in the House of Representatives. Despite strong and vocal opposition from human rights groups and other organizations, Congress has managed to push the bill forward.

It’s not even the worst part. It was the threat given to lawmakers who planned to vote against the bill. Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez told the lawmakers that they would be removed from their key positions in various committees should they vote the bill down. By a vote of 217-54, the bill was passed on the third and final reading.

An iron fist

Speaker Alvarez was voted as the Speaker of the House as he was reportedly President Duterte’s choice to lead. Since then, Congress has served as the president’s ally. Despite the criticisms thrown against Duterte for various issues and controversial statements, he remained confident as he has the backing of Congress. According to the Constitution, only the Congress has the power to impeach a sitting president.

Even before the new Congress began, Alvarez has already consolidated his allies. Those who wanted to take chairmanships in key positions were asked to join the supermajority or jump to the president’s party.

Even in the Senate, the same arrangement was made. Although there was a tough battle between Senator Koko Pimentel and Senator Alan Cayetano for Senate President, both of them were Duterte’s allies.

Senator Pimentel was more lenient in giving chairmanships even to Duterte’s staunchest allies. Senator Leila De Lima was even named the Chair for the Committee on Justice. It didn’t last though. After pushing for a probe on Duterte’s war on drugs policy, it only took a few hearings before Duterte’s allies in the Senate voted to oust her.

Key members of the Liberal Party were also removed from their posts after joining the EDSA Commemoration last February. They were also the same senators who visited Senator De Lima in prison after her arrest.

With a motion by Senator Manny Pacquiao, another Duterte ally, to have them removed, they were helpless. In fact, they seconded the motion, as they knew they were going to lose anyway.

Preserving democracy

The reason why we have different branches of the government is because that is how democracy is preserved. If one branch takes too much power, the other branch will say it’s wrong. For instance, if an executive order is deemed unconstitutional, the Supreme Court may issue a Temporary Restraining Order. If Congress has passed an unfavorable law, the President can veto it.

Hence, it is alarming to see that at least two branches of the government are no longer independent of each other. There is nothing wrong in having a supermajority in Congress especially if their constituents rightfully voted them and they believe that joining the ruling coalition is the way to go.

The problem comes in when the opposition is prevented from speaking out their thoughts, or even threatening them when they vote against what the president wants. Congress was established for healthy discussions on various legislations. The members of the House must have the freedom to vote according to what they think is in the best interest of their constituents.

For instance, the death penalty bill was favored only by half of the respondents in a recent online survey conducted by Sun Star Philippines. However, with death penalty opponents in Congress being threatened, it is like saying that half of the Filipino people doesn’t matter anymore. Again, this is not to say that death penalty shouldn’t be passed. The point is that there should be a healthy discussion on various policy proposals and the executive branch must wholeheartedly accept whatever side wins.

Allowing the president to just railroad another co-equal branch and dictate whatever it wants is definitely how dictators in other countries rule. This must not be the path our country takes if democracy is to be preserved.

This post is supported by a writing grant from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) 

Photo Credit: Philippine Congress