Why the Senate takes on investigative functions

If Vice President Jejomar Binay wishes to put a stop to the Senate blue ribbon subcommittee’s hearings on the corruption allegations against him, the person to talk to is not President Aquino. P-Noy is neither a senator nor a member of Binay’s party. Why would he use his own political capital to bail him out?

Binay should talk to his allies in the Senate. They could, if they are minded, question the purpose and the direction of the hearings, or even move to suspend them altogether to give way to the chamber’s more pressing agenda. Unfortunately for him, the two senior senators—Juan Ponce Enrile and Jinggoy Estrada—who would have been inclined to do so are currently in detention, awaiting trial for plunder. Still, as the front-runner in the 2016 presidential race, Binay is not without staunch supporters in the Senate. His own daughter, Nancy, is a senator.

I am almost sure there have been quiet negotiations within the Senate to stop the hearings. Binay’s reaching out to P-Noy to help him may have been the beleaguered Vice President’s last card. The intriguing question is why no one among the senators has formally made any attempt to rescue Binay from the no-win situation in which he now finds himself.

We can only speculate on the reasons.

One, there must be an unspoken rule in the Senate that once an inquiry in aid of legislation has been authorized, collegiality dictates that no senator must interfere in the proceedings. Two, while any member can file a resolution stating that the entire body should stop the hearings for any reason, that resolution is only as good as the number of votes it can muster, and Binay’s allies do not have the numbers. Three, and perhaps this is uppermost in the minds of the senators, the hearings have taken a life of their own in the public mind. Any formal move to stop them now would be viewed as an unconscionable attempt at a cover-up. No senator in his/her right mind would wish to be publicly associated with any attempt to conceal corruption—certainly not today, when nearly every legislator in the country is under suspicion of personally pocketing pork barrel funds. To the contrary, perhaps taking on the role of inquisitor against the corrupt has become the best way to free oneself of this suspicion.

And yet, in a modern society, the legislature as a political body is not supposed to exercise a function that strictly belongs to the legal system—except in rare cases such as an impeachment. Under our justice system, the investigation of criminal acts is a function of the Department of Justice or, in cases involving public officials, of the Office of the Ombudsman. The weighing of evidence and the declaration of guilt or innocence belong to the courts alone.

The established procedures of the legal system guarantee the protection of the rights of accused persons, notably the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. In court proceedings, a judge may not allow some questions or comments even if they seem commonsensical to a layman. The right of the accused to remain silent is highly protected. The law has its own view of fairness that is not always understandable to nonlawyers, which is probably why media coverage of courtroom trials tends to be restricted.

The distinction between a fact-finding inquiry in aid of legislation and an inquiry to determine criminal culpability seems clear enough. But, as we have seen in many instances, only a thin line actually divides the two. Theoretically, no congressional investigation can assign itself the power to determine guilt or innocence because its purpose is solely to gather information relevant to the crafting or the review of laws. In practice, a congressional inquiry can all too easily turn into a grand jury. And when it does, the codes of politics and the codes of law mix into a potent blend that can undermine the authority of both systems. Add to this mixture the code of the mass media, and what we may get is a spectacle that, often enough, serves neither the objectives of legislation nor the ends of justice.

Binay has complained that the investigation being conducted by the Senate is politically motivated. That shouldn’t surprise anyone; the Senate, after all, is a political body. In the final analysis, the investigation purports to show the public that it would be a catastrophic mistake to elect Binay president in 2016. He could respond by accepting the invitation of the blue ribbon subcommittee and, armed with the truth, defend himself. Instead, he has chosen to denounce the partisanship of the inquiry and mobilize his political forces. What he’s doing is no less political: He ignores the senators and addresses himself to the voters. The risk for the Senate is that if it appears so engrossed in partisan politics as to have no time left for legislation, the public may think poorly about the quality of its present members.

But, beyond all this, we need to ask: What does it do for the cause of justice when people who are “tried” and shown to be guilty in congressional hearings are subsequently pronounced innocent by the courts? The public might conclude the courts have been bought when the real reason could be that the evidence, so persuasive in the media, was insufficient to convict.

It is a paradox that comes with our being a society in transition. We continue to turn to the political system for performances that should have been the responsibility of legal bodies. In our poorly evolved modernity, we still believe that our courts are simply too weak to assert themselves against the power of politicians. That is why the arm of justice waits until they are politically emasculated.

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