January 24, 2018, 9:31 am
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Defending institutions from identity politics

I SAW a funny meme circulating over the holidays with one person lamenting that Christmas made them fat (I think we may have all said this at one point or another, given our tendency to indulge during the season) with the other person thinking: “But you’ve been like that since August.” If part of your resolution for 2018 is the perennial one of losing weight, then good luck on your endeavor. 

Try watching the morning news to lessen your appetite. One morning after the new year, I was unfortunate enough to catch an interview by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez where he lambasted the Senate for acting slowly on key pieces of legislation. He called the Senate “mabagal na kapulungan” or “slow chamber” to deflect observations that the Lower House had a poor showing in terms of passing legislation of national import in 2017. Alvarez denied this, saying that the House did its job and that it was the Senate that was dragging its feet over the bills. 

I was surprised, to say the least, when Alvarez started dishing out unsolicited advice (the leadership could be more active in passing bills, he said) to Senate President Koko Pimentel on how to run his house, so to speak. While public officials should always be open to criticism, it was odd that such sharp statements were being issued in public between co-equals and political party mates, at that. You’d think there was a better way of conveying concern about the pace of legislation between the two top leaders in Congress other than tossing out remarks in an interview. 

You do get why Alvarez is sneering at Pimentel. From his point of view, Pimentel has been unable to shepherd his colleagues in a discernable way, unlike Alvarez who has steamrolled Duterte’s priority bills via the supermajority in the House by not-so-discreet arm twisting and other tactics. In his warped view, he gets things done while Pimentel struggles to steer his fellows. 

Alvarez’ remarks got a tiny rise out of Pimentel, enough for the latter to fire back that the Senate is a “thinking chamber” and that laws should be judged not by the number but by its impact on the lives of ordinary Filipinos. Whatever bravado Pimentel had worked up to respond to Alvarez had been negated by his offering that there was nothing personal between the two men and that in fact, Pimentel was attending Alvarez’ birthday party. Aaaaaw. All’s well that ends well? 

Not really. The behavior of these two showed clearly that identity politics is alive and thriving in or country. Never mind that Alvarez’ remarks (obviously aimed at Pimentel) cast negative aspersions on the Senate as an institution, calling its processes slow and inefficient. Pimentel, despite his attempt at witty repartee, revealed the depths of his strategy by quickly trying to diffuse tension and playing the “it’s nothing personal” card. Senate Minority Floor Leader Frank Drilon understood better than Pimentel the implication of Alvarez’ tirades, and called upon the Senate President to defend the institution. Imagine that: the most senior senator had to prod the Senate President to defend the Senate! 

Alvarez, on the other hand, showed utter disregard for his colleagues in the Senate when he lambasted their legislative performance, essentially questioning why they were taking so long in approving the President’s priority bills, when it was easy-peasy in the House. It also revealed his contempt for Pimentel’s leadership, which has long been a whispered story in the halls of the Senate: unlike Juan Ponce Enrile or Frank Drilon, he could hold the position but he can’t persuade his colleagues to tap to the same tune, even with much cajoling.

With the kind of leadership under Pimentel, it’s reassuring that there are other senators who remain independent, and those who refuse to cower to the administration’s wishes. Even Senator Sonny Angara, allied with the administration, did his best in combing through the TRAIN bill passed by the Lower House, mindful of the impact it can have on his reelection bid. Despite a special mention in the President’s last SONA, Angara did buckle down and go to work on the TRAIN provisions, trying to balance what he could in its myriad of provisions.

In any case, the midterm is soon coming up, and I hope that voters will be more cautious about who they vote for as legislators. With 12 on the chopping block, I remain hopeful that whoever is voted in next will continue to remember the Senate’s reputation for independence and its place in the checks-and-balances system of our governance.
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