, April 24, 2024

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Smart Shaming at the Senate?


  •   4 min reads
Smart Shaming at the Senate?

Lately, shaming government officials has become fashionable at the Upper Chamber

PNA photo by Avito Dalan
By Joey Salgado

It was William Bagehot, a British scholar and constitutionalist, who described parliament as a “great engine of popular instruction.”

“A speech there by an eminent statesman, a party movement, by a great political combination,’”Bagehot wrote, “are the best means yet known for arousing, enlivening, and teaching a people.”

I encountered the writings of Bagehot in the bathroom library of the late Senator Blas Ople. Yes, he had a library in his bathroom, or rather the narrow hallway leading to his bathroom. The office of Ka Blas at the Marbella Mansions on Roxas Boulevard had books everywhere. There were shelves of books in his work area, books on his desk, books on his writing table. He had books in the backseat of his car. I was told the mother lode was in his Bulacan home, which I never had the privilege to visit.

Ka Blas (whom I had the pleasure to work for in the Senate) was the quintessential organic intellectual, a man of humble origins who loved reading and learning. He was a lifelong student, always intrigued by new thinking, new ideas, new discoveries.  But Ka Blas possessed such humility and good manners that he never showed off his intellectual heft. As a senator he never tormented government officials invited to the Senate with his intimidating mind.

I was reminded of Bagehot and Ka Blas after reading a news report about a neophyte senator supposedly humiliating a government official for explaining the difference between the organizational structures of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). For political scientists, this is called comparative governments. In elementary school, we called it social studies. The government official was simply discussing a matter that’s part of his key competence. It’s something he was expected to know. But this senator shamed the official for being knowledgable.

Solons

The Senate occupies a rarefied place in our political set-up. It has been regarded as the domain of learned men and women elected at large by the people. Before the declaration of martial law in 1972 and in the years immediately after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, the Senate was exalted for the brilliance of its senators who displayed their command of oratory, their grasp of current events, and their knowledge of history, evolving worldviews, and realpolitik.

While senators are not required to own - or read - an extensive collection of books (although that would be refreshing), they are nonetheless expected to at least have a working knowledge of how governments work, and the intricacies of executive decision-making, foreign policy, and fiscal management.

They should also be willing to listen and learn from resource persons invited to the Senate. Committee hearings, after all, are opportunities for fleshing out laws in a venue that allows a frank but civil exchange of views. Hearings are learning opportunities.

Vacuity

But lately, some senators have been reported as berating government officials for giving an answer not to their liking, contradicting their views, or even attempting to fill a considerable gap in a legislator’s stock of knowledge. Shaming government officials has become fashionable.

And the government official who is the subject of senatorial scorn is reduced to suffering in silence because resource persons are not supposed to argue with senators, even if these solons are making fools of themselves.

Of course, dramatic outbursts and displays of outsized egos have occurred in the past. Grandstanding is a tradition as old as Congress and JPE. But they were the exception more than the rule. And you have to hand it to the old guards of the Senate. They can hold the gallery in thrall with their staggering brilliance.

What we have been seeing lately, however, are flagrant and painful displays of intellectual vacuity. This goes hand in hand with finger wagging and choice insults hurled in the direction of government officials.

The powers of the Senate have been abused before. More recently, these powers were employed for political ends, to vilify personalities and institutions. And the perpetrators of these demolition jobs were driven by ambition and opportunism rather than sense of duty.

I’m certain Bagehot and Ka Blas would disapprove of this conduct.

“Ibang-iba na ngayon,” one government official, who has been in government for some time and has seen his share of Senate hearings, told me recently. It seems it doesn’t pay to be smart, or act smart, in front of some senators these days.


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