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Philippine Senate’s history

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By Edgardo J. Angara
Former Senator

Edgardo J. Angara

Former Senator Edgardo J. Angara

Last week, I delivered a lecture before the University of Santo Tomas (UST) History Society regarding the Philippine Senate centenary.

UST was an appropriate venue for such a dialogue, with its long history and durable legacy of higher education. With over four centuries of educating the leaders of the professions, UST pioneered in offering progressive academic programs, and led Asia in using Gutenberg print and publishing so-called “incunabula” books. “Incunabula” literally means “infancy” and hence, iconic books printed and published after typography was introduced before 1500.

I traced the Senate’s evolution since it was created a century ago under the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916, known as the Jones Law. The Jones Law signified the first full Filipino participation in government. The Senate had an all-Filipino membership and vested with duties beyond the purely legislative, such as the power of confirmation over appointees of the American governor general to the Executive Department and the Judiciary. The act divided the country into 12 senatorial districts, with each district electing two senators, or a total of 24.

The inaugural Senate president was Manuel L. Quezon, who served from 1916 to 1935 before becoming the first president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines as created by the 1935 Constitution. His Senate President pro tempore Sergio Osmeña was elected vice president.

The 1935 Constitution originally provided for a unicameral legislature, with voters electing to the National Assembly representatives from congressional districts. A constitutional amendment in 1940 revived the bicameral legislature, restoring the Senate of the Philippines and the House of Representatives, with a Senate president and speaker of the House heading the respective chambers.

The revived Senate, however, no longer would have Senators elected via senatorial districts but nationally. And bloc voting was introduced which allowed voters to write the party name on the ballot instead of naming the chosen candidates individually.

Such a system underscored the value lawmakers at the time placed on political parties and the party system. Political parties are important as they recruit and train the next generation of leaders, similar to how the armed services have the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), the police have the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA), and priests have seminaries. In contrast, political parties nowadays are not so much valued, as politicians can easily switch their affiliation as if only changing clothes.

Elections for this revived Senate were held in November, 1941, but those who were elected were not immediately able to take office as World War II broke out in the Philippines by December of that year.

Upon the reestablishment of the Commonwealth on February 27, 1945, President Sergio Osmeña (who succeeded President Quezon upon his death) immediately called for a joint session of the restored bicameral Congress. That first joint session of Congress convened on June 9, 1945, with most of those elected in 1941, assuming their positions.

Elections were held for the second Congress of the Commonwealth the following year on April 23, 1946, and on July 4, 1946, the Third Republic of the Philippines under President Manuel Roxas was inaugurated.

Between 1972 and 1986, Congress was padlocked. President Ferdinand Marcos promulgated a new 1973 Constitution, creating a unicameral Batasang Pambansa.

After the EDSA revolution of 1986, President Cory Aquino declared a revolutionary government and promulgated a transitory Constitution to replace the 1973 Constitution. The 1987 Constitution reestablished the bicameral legislature, again composed of the Senate (nationally elected) and the House of Representatives (elected by districts).

Throughout this storied history, the Senate was a nomadic institution. Its first sessions were held at the Goldenberg Mansion on Solano Street, San Miguel, Manila, in October, 1916; then it moved to the Ayuntamiento de Manila in Intramuros til 1925; then to the Legislative Building (now known as the Philippine National Museum) from 1926 to 1935; and after the war to a Lepanto St. schoolhouse in Manila from 1945 to 1948; and to the session hall of the Manila City Hall from 1947 to 1948. Its odyssey did not end here.

The Senate returned to the Legislative Building from 1949 to 1972, and then from 1987 to 1998—before moving to the GSIS Building, in Pasay City, where it holds session today.

Many of us in the revived Senate after EDSA took immense pride holding office at the Legislative Building in 1987. The building commands awe and respect of the country’s Senate. In contrast, the GSIS venue evokes no similar high-minded sentiment.

Without doubt, the Senate is one institution of the land with such a lasting impact on Philippine history and society. It’s a bulwark of freedom and human dignity and national sovereignty.

Email: angara.ed@gmail.com| Facebook & Twitter: @edangara

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