Sunday, August 14, 2005

Inquirer Editorial

One case

LAST Wednesday, the impeachment process got off to an embarrassing start, with our honorable congressmen consumed in a verbal brawl caught on radio and cable television. The apparently unplanned result was a decision made by the chair of the Committee on Justice, Simeon Datumanong, about 30 minutes into the "initial meeting," to call for an executive session.

In his opening remarks, Datumanong had noted the "unprecedented" circumstances the committee faced: The day the 13th Congress opened its second session, he said, was the first time that three impeachment complaints filed against the same impeachable official were referred one after the other to the Committee on Justice in one session day.

The circumstances raised three "preliminary questions" for the committee to answer, the former member of the Arroyo Cabinet said: whether to consider the complaints one after the other, whether to consolidate them into one, and whether to consider the effect of the third complaint on the first, which it had amended.

That was the last time a flustered Datumanong seemed to have the meeting under effective control. Immediately after his opening statement, a volley of questions and parliamentary motions erupted. Datumanong recognized administration Rep. Edcel Lagman, who proceeded to raise seven "prejudicial questions." Most dealt with Datumanong's third question: the status of the amended complaint as filed by lawyer Oliver Lozano and a host of opposition congressmen.

After Lagman, the deluge. Congressmen, including one who came in late and thus had to settle for the back row, complained about the lack of "access to a microphone" and the smallness of the venue. (Andaya Hall is actually the biggest room in the Batasan, next only to the session hall itself.) Other congressmen raised other concerns. Then Senior Deputy Minority Leader Rolex Suplico questioned the chair's decision to disallow congressmen who were not members of the committee from participating in the committee's deliberations. Unfair, the opposition said.

The executive session ended with a compromise: In addition to the regular and ex officio members of the committee, congressmen who filed the amended complaint or endorsed it can also participate. And the committee will resume meeting on Tuesday, this time in the session hall.

Considering the results and the likely nature of the discussion, Datumanong may have actually done the right thing. The executive session shielded the public from any more embarrassing displays of unruly behavior or a disorderly Congress. Unfortunately for him, public goodwill for such an action cannot last very long. An impatient public wants the committee to buckle down to work.

That means actually considering the impeachment case against the President in its totality. That means considering the first and third complaints as essentially parts of one impeachment case. (The second complaint, filed on July 4 by lawyer Jose Lopez, should not be considered at all, because the congressman who endorsed it has withdrawn his endorsement.)

If administration congressmen want to, they can choose the first, weaker complaint and disregard the third, stronger one. They certainly have the numbers. But they will, with the same certainty, reap the whirlwind of public outrage. Done crudely, such a committee vote will be seen as a brazen attempt to use the impeachment process, not to ferret out the truth, but to cover up the accused. It will be the second Jose Velarde envelope all over again.

The majority must realize the true import of the impeachment process: It is not only the constitutionally mandated process for hearing accusations of impeachable offenses against the President. It is also the President's main venue for putting an end to the credibility crisis she faces.

The way to do that is to throw the strongest possible case against her. If she survives a committee vote on the manifestly weaker complaint, the credibility crisis will continue to undermine her presidency. After all that trouble, the President will be right back where she started. But if she survives the stronger complaint, then she can finally put the crisis behind her.

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