Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Impeachment --- The Power of the People

I was interviewed recently and asked to define impeachment not with the textbook definition but with my own words. Instinctively, I replied that impeachment is the power of the people to remove a president (and other government officials) if they believe that he or she is no longer fit to lead.

Of course, there is a legal definition and impeachment is only a part of the whole process of removing a president (impeachment, an act of the House of Representatives, still has to be followed by a trial in the Senate), but for practical purposes, impeachment is the people’s way of reversing their vote for a President.

While the President is elected into office in a process where all of the people cast their individual votes, a reversal of that act of trust is not through the same process (voting). While anybody can file an impeachment complaint, the power to act on that complaint is delegated to the members of the House of Representatives.

Ideally, since members of the House of Representatives are elected by the people, they are supposed to represent the ideals, aspirations, vision and desires of the populace that voted them into office.

This point brings me to a side issue—what exactly is the role of a Representative? Is it to simply be the mouthpiece of his/her constituents? Or is the Representative given the privilege of making decisions in behalf of the constituents using informed judgment?

Should a congressman simply follow what the people who voted him into office say, even if it goes against his/her principles or the conclusions of his/her studies on the issue? Or is he/she allowed to make judgment calls on what he/she believes is the right thing to do after making a thorough assessment of the issues at hand?

The fault of simply being a mouthpiece is that not just because the people say so, it is already correct. There are times when the people may have a collective opinion on the subject but lack the necessary information to make an informed decision. In Congress, public hearings are conducted in order to gather as many sides of the issue as possible, in order for the members of Congress to make educated decisions. Obviously, not all of the constituents of a member of Congress can attend those hearings and be privy to the issues being discussed. So how can the people make an informed stand on the matter?

On the other hand, giving the member of Congress the leeway to make judgment calls may result in a situation where he/she may make a decision which is unpopular with his/her constituents. Or the decision of the member of Congress may not necessarily be in the interest of the people but only in his/her own.

The dilemma posed by the “mouthpiece or decision-maker” question puts the relationship of the congressman and constituents in a grey area that constantly shifts from being friendly to hostile.

Going back to the impeachment, it has been said that it is the power of the people to remove a President. Such being the case, then it only follows that it is a power that should be held in high regard and handled with seriousness. In other words, it should not be trivialized and devalued since it is an expression of the people’s sovereignty over the leadership of the country. After all, a government under democracy is, as said by Abraham Lincoln, is “a government of the people, by the people and for the people”.

Used erroneously, power may either become oppressive or diluted.

For example, for those who follow the principle of “spare the rod, spoil the child”, the use of the rod as punishment for bad behavior only becomes effective if it is carried out effectively and consistently. Some parents are either not consistent or do not carry out the punishment effectively. In the long run, the policy only becomes a threat, a threat that is eventually learned by the child as something that will never happen. In the end, the power of the rod becomes diluted, even useless.

Another example on a more national scope is the power of traffic laws. These laws are set in place, with violations meted with penalties ranging from a small fine to disqualification from obtaining a driver’s license.

In other countries, traffic laws are faithfully observed by the people since the laws are faithfully implemented by the law enforcement officials. They break the law, they get punished.

In the Philippines, the majority of drivers (I’m tempted to say “all”) do not care about traffic laws. The laws have been rendered not only diluted but even useless, not because the law is weak (our traffic laws are generally patterned after other countries’ traffic laws) but because successful enforcement is weak and the people have been desensitized.

In fact, many drivers already know what to do to get around the penalty. To illustrate, I ask this question to all those who drive out there: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when a traffic cop/enforcer pulls you over?

I am willing to bet that without the traffic cop/enforcer even talking to the driver yet, the average Filipino behind the wheel, when pulled over, will immediately think of how much he will give to the apprehending officer/enforcer. In other words, people are already preconditioned that bribing a traffic cop/enforcer will save him from the penalty of a traffic violation.

The same principle of power that becomes diluted or even useless applies to the power of impeachment. Use it erroneously, it loses its power much like Superman loses his power when in close proximity to Kryptonite.

How can impeachment be used erroneously?

First, if it is used trivially. An impeachment filed frivolously will be an impeachment that is not taken seriously. Take the complaints filed by Atty. Oliver Lozano. How many complaints has he filed? How many have been taken seriously both by the administration and the opposition?

The complaints he filed were ignored by the administration and even criticized by the opposition. Pathetically, whenever frivolous impeachment complaints are talked about, the Lozano complaints are cited by people as examples.

Second, if it is pursued without the intention of being successful. Very much like a law that is not meant to be implemented, an impeachment complaint that is filed without a serious effort to be successful only serves to demean and dilute the people’s power.

I am not a believer in the thinking that it doesn’t matter if an impeachment complaint does not have a chance of being successful, as long as the complaint is filed and the accused is publicly embarrassed or the charges made known to the public. Publicity and propaganda will achieve the same result. I believe the power of impeachment should not be used as a tool for that purpose. Impeachment should only be pursued with one end in mind---the successful removal of a President through the process.

Unsuccessful impeachment complaints, especially if successive, only strengthens the official who is the subject of the complaint, and at the same time weakens the whole process and therefore, dilute the power of the people.

Bacteria become immune from antibiotics if the antibiotics are not used in accordance to prescription. The body develops immunity from bacteria because it develops antibodies to fight off the infection. This may be analogous to impeachments.

If you use impeachments trivially without first gaining the critical mass of support, it only ends in failure. If you fail often enough, the official being impeached learns how to defeat the whole process.

It is imperative then that impeachment should only be filed pursued with the strongest chance of success, not with the “file now, hope to get support later” approach, because that approach will only result in dilution of the power that belongs to the People, not the politicians.

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