Congressional Ethics Committee in the Philippines

The public is powerless against the abuse of the powers that lawmakers have at their disposal. The public’s only recourse would be the Ethics Committees of both the Senate and the House of Representatives – the two of a handful bodies tasked with implementing the public policy on the code of conduct of people who manage the well-being of the country. The House and Senate have exclusive power to discipline their respective members.

The hearings of this Committee are triggered by resolutions seeking investigations into reports of wrongdoing by the legislator’s colleagues. History shows, however, that this Committee, whether in the Senate or the House, repeatedly failed to act on lawmakers’ misdeeds.

One of the more controversial cases to go before the House Ethics Committee was that of Nueva Ecija Rep. Nicanor de Guzman in the 1990s. He was accused of smuggling into the country from the United States hundreds of firearms which were hidden inside a balikbayan box. The public outcry forced the committee to summon de Guzman for an inquiry. But the lawmaker jumped the gun on the committee by resigning his seat. The courts later found de Guzman guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment for gun-running. He served time but was released years later due to failing health.

As a rule, the house, through the Ethics Committee, glosses over its members’ misdeeds or launches token investigations of them, but hardly metes out any sanctions or penalties. Twice in the past, the Committee has failed to investigate allegations of bribe taking.

In 1996, Quezon City Rep. Michael Defensor claimed to have received a P200,000 bribe from Benpres Holdings, the parent company of First Philippine Holdings, which was vying for a contract to rehabilitate the North Luzon Expressway. The house Ethics Committee investigated the allegation, but the inquiry turned into a investigation of Defensor himself, who backed down from his allegations, saying he could not go against a giant like Benpres, which also owns the broadcast network ABS-CBN and the utilities firm Meralco.

In 2000, party-list representatives Renato Magtubo and Etta Rosales accused the House leadership of giving each congressman bribes amounting to as much as P500,000 in exchange for approval of the Omnibus Power Bill. Both lawmakers sought an independent investigation of their allegations and refused to recognize the Authority of the House Ethics Committee, saying that the majority of the 25- member committee were likely recipients of the payola. No independent investigation of the matter was ever conducted.

In November 2001, the House Ethics Committee investigated five congressmen who had been named in a news report as alleged recipients of P2 million each from telecommunications companies Globe and Smart, which were then being probed by the House Committee on Transportation and Communication for their plan to reduce the number of tree messages allowed to subscribers.

Instead of interrogating the lawmakers, the committee picked on the writer of the story, journalist Tita Valderrama, and forced and forced her to divulge her sources. Worse, instead of inhibiting themselves from the hearing, three of the five lawmakers took turns interrogating Valderrama and forcing her to reveal her sources. Even while the hearings were in progress, one of them filed a libel suit against Valderrama and her paper, The Journal. Valderrama, whose editors initially refused to allow her to appear for fear she would only be ridiculed and who have to be subpoenaed themselves to appear before the committee, refused to respond to the lawmaker’s questions. They invoked their right against self- incrimination in light of the libel suit. Since the investigation was getting nowhere, the House Ethics Committee decided to end it, but not the filing of the libel suit.

At the Senate, the Ethics Committee failed to investigate Senators John Osmena and Tessie Aquino-Oreta who publicly admitted to having received a P1 million each as their share in former President Estrada’s winnings from a high-stakes game of mahjong with cronies. The two lawmakers claimed they gave their balato to charity, and made a show of giving the money back. Reacting to a public outcry that the two lawmakers be investigated, the Senate Ethics Committee said it was looking into the possibility of an inquiry to the balato fiasco. It never did conduct an investigation.

In late 2001, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared Senator Rene Cayetano of the allegation that he had profited from the sale of stocks of BW Resources at a time when the Senate was already investigating the firm for alleged insider trading. Dante Tan, a crony of former president Joseph Estrada, headed BW Resources at the time. During Estrada’s impeachment trial, Cayetano himself admitted having invested in BW and having raked in profits of P60 to P70 million pesos. The Senate ethics Committee launched an investigation into Cayetano’s impropriety, but it eventually dropped it and cleared the Senator, purportedly because the Committee could not get Tan to appear and substantiate the allegation.

These actions rendered Congress vulnerable to public condemnation as a so-called old boys’ club that will not punish or exact accountability from one of their own and as an enclave of the powerful who can ignore the law.

The Blue Ribbon Committee

Oversight power of the legislature is intended to ensure effective implementation of laws and enable Congress to adopt appropriate remedial measures should laws fail to address the needs and concerns they are intended to address. Oversight power embraces the power of investigation and the power of requiring department heads to appear before Congress and answer queries on matters concerning their departments through the conduct of the question hour. Legislative oversight, thus, can facilitate early discovery and institution of remedial measures against fraud, graft, corruption, inefficiency, and mismanagement. It guarantees that accountability in implementing policies of the government and or the use of public funds are observed as honestly and responsibly as expected from people who are tasked to implement the purposes of governance.

The power of legislative investigation provided in Section 21, Article VI, of the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines is inherent in the legislative power and an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function with its exercise coextensive with the range of legislative power. The purposes of congressional investigations are roughly classified into three categories: (i) those whose purpose is obtaining information bearing upon legislation; (ii) those that examine the operations of the executive and administrative branches with a view to determining their efficiency; and (iii) those that seek primarily to inform and mold public opinion (Rivera 1962).

Its hearings, however, have been branded as inquisitorial, with committee members accused of playing up to the media and abusing their powers, rather than trying to get to the bottom of the issues. Public perception is that legislative investigations are conducted for purposes other than exacting from government officials and agencies concerned, accountability in the performance of their duties and in the use of public resources. Solons are seen as using investigations for grandstanding, to get back at those who earned their displeasure, or to wangle concessions, financial or otherwise, from parties subjected to investigation. And this public perception is not without “scientific” basis. Of the 991 resolutions filed in the 11th Congress seeking legislative inquiry, only 70 were reported out. This means that of the total number of investigations conducted, a mere 7% thereof were completed or resulted in specific findings relative to the subject of the inquiry. Of the 70 reports, 22 were archived, which means that Congress is not pursuing any legislative action on the matters investigated. These findings indicate that most legislative investigations do not result in concrete legislative action or policy recommendations on the concerns and issues investigated.

Over the years, the Blue Ribbon Committee has shamed many public servants or private individuals whom it summoned to testify. Former Senator Rene Saguisag once said of the body: 

“The Constitution really authorizes investigation in aid of legislation. However, I have been the most vocal senator about the way we use, or misuse, this power. I’d have thought we would be more sparing in our use of it. And we would be more prepared when we summon people for questioning. But we seem to be merely badgering the people we invite.”

And the perceived usurpation by the legislature of powers constitutionally vested in the executive or judiciary branches (through its oversight function) has resulted to the recent issuance of Executive Order 464 that forbids cabinet members and other officials under the Executive from appearing before Congress and testifying without the approval of the President. This has incensed Congress that claims the right to exercise “oversight” and claims that a necessary entailment of this right is the right to secure the compulsory attendance even of members of the Cabinet to answer questions of Congress. It is an issue the Philippine Supreme Court must still resolve whether or not under the present constitution and government mechanisms, Cabinet members can be summoned by Congress and made to respond to queries.