By Atty. Howie Calleja
We shall not mince words: the delicate equilibrium of our entire government’s system of checks and balances is threatened by the President’s recent directive to his Cabinet members, and other Executive officials, to disobey any summons given to them by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. In the name of “democracy”, our President has said that the series of hearings that investigate a discrepancy of P67 billion funds meant for the COVID-19 pandemic is impeding a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hypocrisy of these remarks is not been unnoticed by this author.
Sir, what is more democratic than the legal and essential process than that which is so fundamental to our law-making bodies? The power of inquiry, and enforcing it, is what allows our legislators to carry out their legislative function – without which we would have a Congress making laws without crucial information. The absence of information in Congress, whose purpose is to craft laws that reflect current needs, and in a society rife with constant change (and, yes, corruption), would be a kangaroo court indeed.
Why then, is the delicate system of checks and balances under attack by these remarks? Well, if the Senate investigation of executive officials is impeded by the President, how then can there be a public audit of what happened to the tens of billions of pesos meant for pandemic relief? Why is the President insistent in his belief that he is above the Senate when our Constitution clearly states that it is a co-equal branch of government. If you have nothing to hide, then you should have nothing to fear, Sir. This directive will undoubtedly cause a constitutional crisis in the midst of a pandemic that has cost the lives of almost 39,000 Filipinos. If you are indeed pulling this stunt for the purpose of the pandemic response, as you’ve stated, then why target an investigation that seeks to uncover where the pandemic money went?
Neither does the President have any power to bar both members of his Cabinet and executive officials from attending a Senate investigation in aid of legislation. In the case of Senate v. Ermita, the Court held that appearance is mandatory when required by Congress in investigations in aid of legislation. Though the same case mentioned an exception to the power of inquiry, which may fall under the rubric of “executive privilege”, such privilege cannot possibly be invoked here.
The “executive privilege” of the President is essential the power of the President to withhold information from Congress and the public when certain categories of information is that of a sensitive character. This usually relates to matters of national security, so what then is the purpose of the President for not wanting the public to know the testimony of his allies? Especially when such testimony is crucial to determining the location of missing funds for his COVID-19 response? A hypothesis is brewing…
Perhaps the most important aspect of this privilege is that it is in relation to information, not to persons. Though our Constitution provides that Heads of Departments must be given consent by the President, Duterte has no authority to claim that the entirety of his executive officials should not appear before the ongoing investigation. The Court has even previously held, in the case of Guidani v. Senga, that, despite the President’s power of commander-in-chief, they may ask a military member to ignore a judicial order that compels him to appear before the Senate. Thus, even those directly under the President’s purview are not absolved under this privilege.
How far will President Duterte go to protect his allies? We’ve seen him promote former Bureau of Customs heads when they were found in the middle of a multi-billion peso drug scandal, we’ve seen him declare his trust in PhilHealth heads who were found committing fraud to the tune of P15.4 billion, and now, yet again, here he is declaring words of admiration for those in the very center of a scandal that has been a direct cause to the 39,000 lives lost. His willingness to go through a constitutional crisis, all for Pharmally, once again begs the question: how far will he go? Or even another question, how much is it costing Pharmally in the next election cycle?
If he continues this, how far will he, and his allies, go in the upcoming election? His finish line in influencing corrupt officials is closing in and it is evident to the people that he will not get very far indeed. We are all clearly seeing that the President’s suppression of evidence, which is crucial to determining the disappearing funds crucial to the pandemic response, likely means that the adduced evidence will be adverse to the President himself. Let us remind him that the last time a President aimed to suppress evidence to the Senate, our country found itself on EDSA for the second time. Let us also remind him that the oath he took was one to protect the law-abiding Filipinos, not defend corruption in Pharmally, and certainly not to protect his allies in Chinese-backed corporations. Again, we are talking about billions of pesos, the people’s money. The money that would have alleviated the plight of the poor and unemployed, that would have mitigated the pandemic’s effects, and that would have saved even one of those 39,000 lives.