Institutions over individuals


    THE day Richard Nixon failed to answer the subpoenas,” intoned the senator in 1998, “is the day he was subject to impeachment.” The speaker was Lyndsey Graham, senator from South Carolina and a member of the Republican Party. Graham was stressing the power of oversight of the United States Congress, a Constitutional power that no one, not even the President of the United States, can deny or ignore.

    It was one of those moments when politics in the United States was demonstrably elevated to where institutions trumped individuals, where Constitutional principles trumped partisan politics.

    It is also one of those moments that have a way of haunting the actor, because in this day and age of deeply divided and highly partisan politics Lyndsey Graham is one of the knee-jerk defenders of the current US President who, in turn, has decided to ignore the subpoenas being issued by the US House of Representatives in the exercise of the very same oversight functions that Graham was citing in his speech 20 years ago.

    As a senator, Graham will sit as a senator-judge if and when the House passes articles of impeachment. Will he now be voting “guilty” if Donald Trump is impeached on the very same articles as were drawn up against Nixon in 1974?

    One of the reasons that the US political system has lasted this long – despite its own ups and downs and one-step-back moments – is the almost consistent deference by the political and (more importantly) legal system towards institutions and institutional processes, with the US Constitution at its foundation and legal interpretation as its support.

    And this deference is done irrespective of partisan political color. So much so that the only US president ever to resign from office, Richard Nixon, did so despite the fact that his partymates controlled enough seats in the senate in 1974 to foil a conviction.

    But one by one Senate Republicans made it known to the White House that given all that was being revealed about the Watergate scandal they would not be able to vote for an acquittal. Seeing the writing on the wall, Nixon resigned.

    Even on the legal front the courts chose to uphold the sanctity of institutions during the political turbulence in 1973-1974. Courts upheld the power of Congress to issue subpoenas, denying the Presidential claims of immunity under the guise of national security or executive privilege. It was a court decision instructing the White House to release tape recordings of phone conversations that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; when the tapes revealed gaps of deleted portions that signaled an attempt at a cover-up by the White House that in turn was a signal to Nixon’s legislative partymates that they would have to sacrifice their president in the name of the US Constitution.

    As a lifelong political science student I can only marvel at how, in the main, politics is played this way in the United States and how the courts hew to the same principled imperatives. But lessons from US history leave me with two questions:

    First: Will US history repeat itself in the impeachment inquiry on Donald Trump?

    And second: will Philippine politics and jurisprudence ever become similarly marked as one that values institutions and institutionalized processes over individuals?

    For the Philippine context, I will have to keep hoping till my dying day!