June 3, 2009

It takes two to tango... or cha-cha

If anyone has taken "Philippine Government and Constitution" as one of their required college subjects, they'd learn that our Congress -- the Senate and the House of Representatives -- is a bicameral body; one can't move without the other. They can't pass laws without the concurrence of another. If their versions don't match, they'll have a "third chamber," the bicameral conference committee to sort things out.

So the House's insistence of going through the constituent assembly in an "abnormal" way is odd to say the least.

The reason why we have two houses of Congress is specifically to prevent this type of nonsense: to prevent a house from railroading a bill without "checks and balances" from another agency, which is, to put into proper context, one of the principles President Arroyo wants to eliminate, if we were to remember her 2005 SONA.

Ever wondered why the Senate has a smaller number of members? For one, most of the "upper houses" among countries with bicameral legislatures (in theory, either house is equal to one another) are selected differently from those members of the lower houses. In lower houses, most members are almost always selected via legislative districts, although some are via the list system, or via proportional representation. This means that lower house represents, in theory, local interests. So in most instances, the country is split up into plentiful legislative districts, and every district sends one representative.

Unlike lower houses, the members of the upper house are selected on a variety of ways, in presidential systems they are elected on a somewhat larger "legislative district" (for example, instead of a group of towns, the entire state or province), in our case, the entire country is one "at-large" district; ergo, aside from the President and the Vice President, Senators claim to have a national constituency. In most cases, Senators have longer terms (some countries have Senators serve for life or until they quit) than representatives. In many cases, they have lesser powers, such as in our case, local bills and bills of appropriation (the budget) can't originate from the Senate, although they are compensated by powers such as to try impeachments, confirm certain appointments, and the like.

So as you can see, most lower houses have shorter terms for members and elected at smaller constituencies as compared to most upper houses. Their shorter terms and smaller constituencies are compensated by their larger membership. So if you'll treat the two houses as one body, the lower house will always defeat the upper house if they'll vote strictly by... how should I put it... by "house lines."

Therein lies the rub! The lower house will always have a distinct advantage when the houses are lumped together, so what do constitutional framers do to prevent this? Each house votes separately. What effect does this have? Aside from "checks and balances" this can also cause approval of bills to proceed more slowly, but that is a price you'd pay to make sure things such as this doesn't happen.

Every representative in the Philippine lower house knows this fact: they can't proceed without the Senate. But what makes them all pert and perky about railroading this constituent assembly? What are they hiding up their sleeves? Currently there are 23 senators, with the majority number pegged at 13. If they do get 13 votes from the Senate, the proposal doesn't need to be hiked to the Supreme Court. If they don't and pursue, this will go to the Supreme Court. And I betcha the very same professors of law, of politics, of the constitution, the justices of the Supreme Court, also know this cold hard fact: well, aside from that there is only "one Supreme Court," the Congress of the Philippines... consist[s] of a Senate and a House of Representatives," according to the first section of Article VI. Notice the use of the word "and," not "or."

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