Custodians of a 100-year old legacy

By Senator Ralph Recto

(Politiko note: This article was originally published on Politiko 365 magazine in 2017)

The burden of being a senator is that we are not only answerable to the present and to the future, but also to the past.

And we are reminded of our being trustees of a proud heritage when we walk past the names of our predecessors etched on the plaques that hang on the corridor near the session hall.

For some of us, the link is personal because in the roster is an ancestor, so in times of great decisions, as we ponder our choices, we inevitably ask ourselves what would he have done if he were alive today.

Indeed, we summon the past to chart the future, and reading the Senate’s records never fails to be a teachable moment for those who seek wisdom from this institution’s storied past.

The Senate’s story in the past 100 years is interwoven with the nation’s. Whatever the era, the Senate played a major role in shaping our country’s history.

Any chronicle of the struggle of our race – for independence, against occupation and in the restoration of freedom – will not be complete if this institution’s contribution is not faithfully recalled. When democracy was stifled, it did not go gently into the night; many of its members carried the torch until the second dawn of freedom.

Recall any watershed in our history, and the senators were right there in the middle of it, not as mere or mute witnesses but as lead actors, dictating the tempo and defining the outcome.

For this has always been the role of this institution: A few good men and women fighting the good fight, serving as protectors of the people.

Whenever the state overreaches to dilute rights and snatch liberties, the Senate steps forward and stands in front of the people. Whenever a leader is tempted to perpetuate himself to power, the Senate foils his selfish ambition. Whenever a harm is committed, whether to one man whose name has been tarnished or to the nation whose honor has been stained, the Senate rectifies it.

There’s also one freedom that the Senate has fought for through the ages – freedom from want.

It has birthed brave legislation to spur growth, to level the playing field, to end economic bondage, to create wealth, and to make sure that it is enjoyed by all.

And in all of these, senators were guided by what was not popular but what was right.

In many crusades, it sailed against the wind and defied convention. Many members fought solitary fights, never seeking refuge in the strength of numbers but in the strength of their ideas. Each one of them believed that one man with conviction is enough to constitute a majority.

Since Quezon and 23 other originals borrowed the sala of the Goldenberg Mansion, which is the stately house beside DBM, to hold the Senate’s inaugural session 100 years ago, the Senate has remained small. With 24 members who can’t fill half a bus, this Senate is one of the smallest in the world.

As befits its size, it holds session in a rented hall whose floor area is smaller than a volleyball court. Some call it the tiniest legislative plenary hall in the world. I call it cozy.

I am proud of the prodigious output of this 24-person crew in studying bills, churning out laws, appropriating funds, conducting zealous oversight, confirming appointees, ratifying treaties, and, yes, probing scams.

While the latter makes for good TV, they do not even represent a tiny fraction of the work we do. Lawmaking is the main event; telenovela-like probes are sideshows.

The fact is, most of our labors are done outside the glare of klieg lights – in conference rooms where the humdrum of policymaking is endured for hours, in senators’ and secretariat offices where staff work on ideas which do our nation good even if they don’t on our re-election chances.

The session hall may be the showroom, but the production line lies somewhere else. It has been said that the Senate in session is exhibition. But the Senate conducting committee hearings is at work.

Laws do not incubate in the plenary. They arrive here almost complete except for the finishing élan, canceling the need for finish-line oratory as it would be repeating what has been said in the committees.

When the vetting is rigorous, the voting becomes anti-climactic. And while the division of the house may tally votes, it does not record the work that goes into the measure.

I have to stress this to disabuse the popular notion that we are pre- occupied with probes and not with policy. Nothing is farther from the truth.

This 2016 we celebrated 100 years of the Senate, including the 25 years when it was padlocked or abolished, because as much can be learned when it was in session as it was when shuttered.

And the period when the Senate was closed coincided with our nation’s darkest – for 15 years when Martial Law raged, and 5 years under the Japanese occupation.

For that was how liberty probably died – through the loud clang- ing of the chains that locked the Senate doors.

So it gave me great relief when Senate President Koko Pimentel made the solemn pledge, in the old Senate hall, where his father and my grandfather once walked, that as a custodian of its legacy, he will not allow the Senate to perish during his watch.

I also believe that even though we sign our own death warrants, the sovereign would overrule us, out of the belief that their interests are served more by a Senate in existence than a Senate extinguished.

We in the minority will work hard to keep that public faith by do- ing what is expected of us.

If, for example, the agenda of the majority serves the public interest, then our correct stance is to co- operate because to oppose-for-opposing’s sake is a bankrupt ploy which has never prospered in this marketplace of ideas.

If the agenda of the majority, however, harms the people and hurts the nation, then we are du- ty-bound to oppose it. And when that happens, we in the minority will try to convince the majority, not by the shrillness of our voice, but by the soundness of our arguments, because reasoning should rely more on facts than on flair.

We know when to stand our ground, and when to seek common ground.

There are more that bind us than separate us. We are all inheritors of one Senate tradition.

We don’t countenance abuse, we counter it. We don’t diminish our sovereignty, we defend it. We don’t top tax proposals, we temper them. We prefer bad peace over a just war.

We believe that those who have less in life must have more in government help. We don’t choke free trade, we champion it. We affirm that progress should not always be at the expense of rights.

We believe that in creating wealth, merit is better than mandates. We believe that investing in our people yields the highest returns.

We believe that in building a kinder and gentler society, we must appeal to our people’s basic decency and not to their basest fears.

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