President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to block his Cabinet from attending any Senate hearings while also ordering the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as well as the Philippine National Police (PNP) not to follow any order from the legislative body will almost certainly result in a constitutional crisis.
Legal circles have warned of the possible crisis after the President said last week that he would ban members of his Cabinet from attending the Senate Blue Ribbon committee probe into Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. over the alleged questionable deal the company had with the Health department to supply billions of pesos worth of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The Senate has the power to compel anyone including Cabinet members to attend its hearings and call on the AFP or the PNP to force anyone who refuses to be physically brought to the chamber.
But Duterte said Blue Ribbon chairman Sen. Richard Gordon was committing “abuse of discretion” by prolonging the hearings.
In spurring a possible constitutional crisis, Gordon said the President runs the risk of committing sedition and betraying the people’s trust.
If the President insists on pursuing his threatened course, Gordon said that it was clear Duterte “is hiding something.”
Duterte said during his weekly public address that he would issue a memorandum ordering his Cabinet to ignore any summons from the Blue Ribbon panel.
A group of University of the Philippines College of Law alumni said in a statement that they “strongly condemn” the President’s directive as being “clearly unconstitutional.”
The group was comprised mostly of UP Batch 75 and 76 led by retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio.
They said, “The President must allow the Senate to perform its constitutional oversight function in investigating possible anomalies in the purchase of several billion of pesos of PPE” by the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management.
The lawyers from the state university cited the case of the Senate vs. Ermita (2003) where the high court ruled that “the President has no power to bar Cabinet members and other executive officials from attending Senate inquiries in aid of legislation.”
The only exception is when the executive invokes “executive privilege” which refers to matters involving national security, military or diplomatic secrets, or conversations between the President and his officials.
Obviously, this cannot be invoked in the purchase of common-use PPEs, they said.
Despite the President’s threat, Gordon said the investigation will go on “to kingdom come.”
After two Pharmally directors switched off their virtual connectivity without permission, Gordon declared them in contempt of the Senate and ordered the Sergeant at Arms to arrest and detain them.
To this, the President said he would order the PNP “to frustrate the Senate Sergeant at Arms from executing the Senate’s orders.”
Duterte said he was aware that his actions could result in a constitutional crisis.
“I’m sorry it has gone this way,” he said, “I do not want it. It is the last thing I wanted to do, to quarrel with a separate body” of the government.
Last week’s threat to ban Cabinet members from attending Senate hearings was not the first time that the President has toyed with the idea of defying the charter.
Earlier this year, Duterte said Cabinet secretaries would first need his permission before they could attend any hearing in the upper chamber of Congress.
That presidential order was given verbally, however and Duterte did not stop any Cabinet secretary who were called by the Senate to attend.
This time, he ordered Executive Sec. Salvador Medialdea to create a document telling Cabinet officials to ignore any summons from the Blue Ribbon committee.
Duterte said the extended Blue Ribbon hearings were preventing his Cabinet secretaries from addressing the more serious problem of the COVID-19 pandemic and the damage it was causing the economy.
The President said Gordon was “playing God” and added, “Never mind Gordon. He is nothing.”
Gordon had earlier accused the President of lawyering for Pharmally and the mud-slinging between the two has progressively gone from bad to worse.