It was one of the most excruciatingly pedantic repetitious exercises in futility and triviality it has ever been our misfortune to witness. We can break the news to you now – the lunatics really are running the asylum. For if members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Justice who yesterday jettisoned an impeachment complaint against the head of the country’s most important democratic institution – the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) – was them getting to the crux of the matter, then we ALL need to be in the rubber room.
The fact is though they weren’t doing that; as usual they were posturing and preening before the cameras and getting themselves in a tangle over the minutiae of what was really at issue. That was, by any normal reading, a straightforward complaint against COMELEC chairman Andres Bautista, listing strong claims of gross negligence, impropriety, ill-gotten wealth and false declaration concerning his net worth.
None of that “substance” was looked at, however. Foremost on the minds of all but two committee members, as they mumbled, bumbled and stumbled through their deliveries in opposing acceptance of the complaint was the “form” of how the complaint had come into their hands.
Under the Rules of Procedure in Impeachment Proceedings – adopted by the 15th Congress of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – Rule III, Section 4 requires that the committee makes a “determination of sufficiency in form and substance”. And in that order.
What that means in English is that the complaint must first comply with certain set protocols before its essence can be assessed. Basically, if it fails the form test it’s history. So how did it fail?
Simply, 18 pages of material had been misaddressed. No matter that it was now in their possession and were in a position to deal with it, there’d been some apparently unspeakable infringement of a postal code – instead of being addressed to the Justice Committee it had been sent to the House itself instead. As far as House Majority Leader, the irrepressible Rodolfo “Rudy” Fariñas, was concerned that was sufficient in ‘lack of form’ for him to move for the complaint’s dismissal.
There were other issues too which the finicky sticklers for the rules took exception to but we’ll spare you those. The upshot was that after fussing and worrying their way through the rules, the Justice Committee voted by 26 to 2 to kill the complaint and make Bautista ineligible for impeachment for another 12 months. In their wisdom they’d determined that sticking to a strict adherence of their petty punctilios was far more important than either seeking the truth in a matter that affects every man, woman and child in the country or of protecting the fabric of Philippine democracy.
For them it was a no-brainer – perhaps unsurprisingly having listened to them: no question, they resolved, the baby must be sluiced along with the bath water. What that baby contained however, was a sworn affidavit from Bautista’s estranged wife, Patricia, attesting to the validity of a trove of seemingly incriminating material that she’d discovered about her husband’s financial affairs – among other things, cash and assets to the tune of PHP1.2 billion. But there were other items there – emails and additional correspondence – that could point in the direction of vote irregularities during last year’s national election.
For Fariñas however, it seems it wouldn’t have mattered if it had contained a notarised confession from the COMELEC chairman himself. For the illustrious congressman, form must always take precedence over substance. He believes deeply in the sacrosanctity of rules. On Monday, for example, he reminded the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the capital’s main administration, of another rule – that it’s incumbent on the MMDA to accord lawmakers with immunity whenever they commit minor traffic violations.
Fariñas was irritated that apprehending his co-workers for traffic offences would hamper them in performing their legislative duties. Apparently – believe it or not – lawmakers who break traffic laws which are punishable by no more than six years imprisonment are immune from prosecution and cannot be arrested if the offences are committed while Congress is in session. In other words, during those times, they’re free to drive about drunk without lights while chatting on their mobile phones if they want to – Section 11, Article VI of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.
The madness of that rule and that of the rules invoked by the Justice Committee yesterday morning have much in common. In true Orwellian one-rule-for-us-one-rule-for-them fashion, both resoundingly establish the eliteness of the political class; both snigger at the plight of ordinary citizens; both replace the pursuit of justice with the legitimising of special interest; both nurture the potential for corruption.
Frankly, for a democracy in spirit – rather than one superficially in claim – there’s no good reason for giving congressmen immunity from prosecution any more than there is of allowing highly-paid heads of government commissions to evade accountability on technicalities. Actually, if anything, public servants should be held to a higher, not a lesser, account.
None of this, however, means that Bautista is out of the woods. Far from it – he may have sort of won a battle, but the war has just begun. For one thing, the full House – if a third of its members sees fit – can kick this issue upstairs to the Senate.
On top of that, as the Anti-Money Laundering Council considers a freeze of the COMELEC chairman’s assets, there are ongoing probes into the Bautista affair by the National Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Presidential Commission on Good Government which he headed from 2010 to 2015 prior to being handed the COMELEC top job.
Put plainly, for Andres Bautista, who after the hearing told CNN Philippines he felt “vindicated” – an utter misreading of what had taken place of course – it’s too soon to be popping the champagne corks. Vindication for him can only come if and when investigations into his alleged corruption clear him of all blame and suspicion. Just for the record, the Committee on Justice didn’t do that; it never even glanced at his case.
As the Liberal Party’s big gun in the House, Edcel Lagman, remarked at the end of the complaint deliberations: “There are various avenues to know the truth other than an impeachment proceeding”.
Those may have seemed like conciliatory words to those who brought this complaint and those in a wider sphere who supported it, but we’re fairly sure Mr Lagman will do all in his power to make sure the case against Aquino-appointee Bautista doesn’t prosper. Certainly, he worked hard in helping to guide the Justice Committee towards its conclusion yesterday.
The result aside, though, this congressional gathering was an ugly show. In terms of its own form it presented a parody of a parliament. It had all the carnivalesque of the Feast of Fools; a tableau reminiscent of jesters’ feeding time at a medieval court. One stuttering oration followed another as members dived into platefuls of food, downed beverages, texted who knows who, made phone calls, chatted, cracked jokes and giggled to each other. It would have been kinder to show it on the radio.
And it really begs the question: if form is so precious when it comes to the business of dealing with serious issues of national interest – and this one most certainly is – how come those entrusted to see that business through have such little respect for the form they project to the public they’re sworn to serve?
The Filipino public wants to see justice being served, not food; they want to hear their representatives discussing pertinent facts, not watch them masticating. They didn’t switch on their TVs to check out the House specialty of the day, or what time merienda’s coming round. They wanted to know that the people they elected – the diners on screen – were actually doing the job they expect them to. And so for many, we’re sure, that early free lunch with legislators shoveling food into their mouths will have left an extremely bad taste.
By stark contrast, Patricia Bautista (photo, right centre) – attending the committee hearing as an observer – displayed great form and no shortage of class. As members pontificated and postured and repeated each other with scrambled monologues in their frenzy to be heard; while waiters bobbed in and out of shot endlessly delivering meals and drinks, she sat quietly throughout the proceedings – unfazed by the madness of the asylum she found herself in.