The Senate: a political institution that lost its luster

The Philippine Senate is a political institution that was created during the American occupation years. Also called “the upper house”, the Senate is a legislative body that can be traced back to the Philippine Commission, which was created to assist the Americans in administering government powers in the Philippines. According to the 1987 Constitution, the Philippine Senate is composed of 24 senators, where 12 seats will be up for grabs every three years. A senator can only serve two consecutive six-year terms, for a total of 12 years. As senators are elected by the whole country, it requires candidates to be immensely popular as the electorate votes for 12 senators every three years.

Aside from its legislative responsibilities, the current constitution grants additional powers to the members of the Senate. Senators are needed to complete the Commission on Appointments, where approval is required from the aforementioned commission before department secretaries and ambassadors officially assume their duties in their respective departments or foreign posts. The Senate also has the ability to impeach the president and the chief justice, albeit requiring the House of Representatives’ (lower house’s) consent. In addition, the Senate ratifies treaties signed with other countries, whether bilateral or multilateral in nature. These strong powers granted by the constitution to the Senate provide an impression that, ideally, the upper chamber must be filled with respectable, competent, and dignified individuals who are committed to defend the interests of the Philippine archipelago and of the Filipino people. However, reality seems distant to what is ideal.

The current political reality is that, the Senate is no longer the political institution that it should be. This can be seen when one keenly observes and contextualizes the general and midterm elections held from 1992 until 2022. Three decades’ history of electing senators reveal patterns that put a spotlight light on how feeble and fragile political institutions are in the Philippines. With such, there are two election observations that must be noted vis-à-vis the Philippine Senate.

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The first observation is that, the winning candidates who garner the most number of votes are usually showbiz or media personalities, or candidates who are directly related to these individuals The exemptions would be the 1995 elections with current Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 2016 elections with then-Senator Franklin Drilon, and the 2019 elections with current Senator Cynthia Villar. However, in the 2016 senatorial elections, Senator Tito Sotto ranked third, while current Senator Grace Poe held to the second position in the 2019 elections. This leaves the 1995 senatorial elections as the only genuine exemption to such generalization.

The second observation is that, the Senate is becoming a mere launching pad for politicians who eye higher positions in the next general elections, which are the Offices of the President and the Vice President. In the 1992 elections, then-Senator Joseph Estrada became Vice President and in the next general elections, he won the presidency with then-Senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo occupying his previous position. In the 2004 elections, the ticket of Arroyo-de Castro emerged victorious, who both had legislative experience as senators. In 2010, then-Senator Benigno Aquino III won Malacanang and, last year, Ferdinand Marcos Jr cruised his way to a landslide victory for the country’s top position after also serving as a one-term senator. Only the 2016 general elections would serve as an exemption, as both then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and then-Camarines Sur Representative Ma. Leonor Robredo held no position in the Senate. Aside from the eventual winning candidates and then-Vice President Jejomar Binay, the 2016 elections were crowded with senators who ran for higher office.

Connecting these two observations regarding Philippine electoral results together, it becomes evident that the Senate is no longer the illustrious political institution that it was initially meant to be. Gone are the days when Filipino luminaries like Miriam Defensor Santiago, Juan Flavier, Blas Ople, and Joker Arroyo, who exemplified competence, genuine public service, and a solid understanding of Philippine realpolitik graces the Senate halls. Unfortunately, the senate has degraded and become a stark reflection of a deeply-embedded oligarchy and oligopoly that stubbornly resists political reform. However, these politicians cannot be blamed completely because the current political system of the Philippines incentivizes them to lean more towards popularity instead of competence. Luckily, the Philippines can learn from world history through the successes of the Roman Senate and the United States Senate, which are political institutions that played significant roles in nation-building.

Albeit different from its legislative powers that are associated with modern upper chambers, the Roman Senate served as a governing body from the formation of the humble Etruscan city-state of Rome until the eventual disintegration of the Roman Empire. The changing powers of the Roman Senate reflected the economic, political, and social realities that Rome has faced, where the aforementioned political institution served as the basis for the Romans in creating a strong state. Despite its shortcomings, the Roman Senate allowed itself to undergo structural reform and surrender some of its powers due to external pressures. This allowed the Roman state to effectively and efficiently respond to national exigencies which allowed the Roman civilization to last for more than a millennium.

On the other hand, the American Senate, which serves as the other half of the bicameral legislature of the United States, roughly plays the same roles and is afforded similar powers to that of the Philippine Senate. However, what sets the United States Senate apart from its Philippine counterpart is its structure. The current American Senate is composed of 100 senators, where each state is represented by two senators, who in turn are elected by their state electorate. Despite qualms over proposals to adjust the numbers of senatorial representation that would reflect their respective demographics, the two senators per state structure was designed to avoid tyranny of the majority. If it wasn’t the case, the sheer numerical superiority of the states of California, Texas, Florida, and New York can easily silence the interests of Vermont, Alaska, Delaware, and Wyoming.

Looking at the cases of the senates of Rome and the United States, the Philippines’ upper house must definitely undergo political restructuring. Ideally, the Senate must be an institution that acknowledges and works toward the protection and promotion of Philippine national interests, but the reality seems to be far from it as it has merely become a bastion of political ambition. How can representative democracy work in the Philippines when the upper chamber is predominantly represented by individuals hailing from Luzon and Metro Manila? Will these senators understand the hardships of the heavily-marginalized regions and provinces of the Philippines? If Filipinos desire political reform, most specially in the senate, it begins and ends with charter change.

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