Carvajal: Irrelevance

Orlando P. Carvajal

WHAT is the relevance of the Senate to the lives of the Filipino people?

The right time for this might be during deliberations on the shift to federalism. But I recently got going on strong institutions and the Senate is one institution that needs strengthening in a very specific way. Hence, this is as good a time as any to start conversing (not arguing) on this issue.

Whatever relevance the Senate might have had in the past is no longer there. Besides, whatever relevance it had did not come from something inherent in the institution’s weak social structure but from statesmen-members like Recto, Tanada, Diokno, Manglapus, Salonga, etc. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a while since we’ve had legislators of their caliber and stature.

A major source of the Senate’s irrelevance is the provision that senators are elected by Filipinos at large. Senators do not represent, and are not voted into office by, a specific political constituency. Hence, they are answerable to nobody. And it shows in how they spend people’s time and money grandstanding at fruitless investigations and weak legislation that can only be for the purpose of expanding and consolidating their political fiefdoms.

Because they are elected at large, their election campaign is extremely expensive. Some candidates have been reported to spend 100 million on TV ads alone. How much, do you think, for barangay captains’ support? So how can they be meaning to serve when they invest a disproportionately gross amount of money to secure a seat in the Senate? The presumption has to be that they do whatever it takes to recover their investment.

In 2013 senators received a 90,000 monthly salary plus honoraria for committee chairmanships plus travel expenses and the salaries, capital outlays and other expenses of their staff. But that is nothing compared to their share of the 51% of the Senate’s budget that the Senate President controls and distributes to senators yearly. In 2013, the lowest share was 34 million while the highest, the Senate President’s, was a staggering 98 million.

It is obvious that even from legitimate compensation alone and without going into the dark side of the moon (and that they do), senators are getting good returns on their investment. The question is what Filipinos get in return for the country’s investment on the Senate.

In the event of a shift to a federal form of government, to be consistent with federalism the country should only have a unicameral legislative body composed of district representatives of autonomous regions. If there must be a Senate, it would be more useful and relevant if senators come from, are elected by, hence answerable to, a specific autonomous region.