Published September 25, 2007
Humor, like the elaborate courtesies our “honorable” lawmakers extend to one other in their “august” chambers, oils the legislative mill. (Whether their rococo language is an inadvertent joke is altogether another matter.) Even the usually strident Miriam Defensor-Santiago, for example, can be relied on to sprinkle her locutions with frabjous comment.
At the Senate joint committee hearings on the National Broadband Network last Thursday, the former judge played the Speaker Jose de Venecia card, eliciting from Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza his recollection that “the son [whistleblower Joey de Venecia] was introduced to me by the father.”
How did the Speaker introduce his son, Santiago persisted. “Did he say, ‘This is my son, with whom I am well-pleased?”
Unfortunately, the Gospel reference was entirely lost on an untransfigured Mendoza.
* * *
Humor, Wittgenstein said, is “not a mood but a way of looking at the world.” By that standard, we should not say that Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., now on his 14th year in the Senate, was in an atrociously bad mood last Thursday; only that he regards testimony before the Senate as vulnerable to obfuscation and windbaggery.
Going over the notes I took during last Thursday’s hearing at the Senate, I count three of Pimentel’s sharp-edged jokes. (I’m sure there were others, but I must have missed them while freezing in the session hall.) If, as Wittgenstein again assures us, “a serious … philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes,” surely a listing of Pimentel’s apercus won’t be out of place in a largely political column. (Besides, I can’t find them documented in news reports.)
At the hearing, Mendoza cut a Reaganesque figure; I do not mean charismatic and eloquent, but generally, even loopily, disengaged. (“Clueless,” the newspapers said the following day.) At one point, Mendoza indicated that Assistant Secretary Lorenzo Formoso (for the nth time) could answer the question at hand more competently. Pimentel egged the designated hitter on: “Mr. Formoso, please come to the rescue.”
In his opening statement, Mendoza sought to triangulate what he called the “unbridled and ruthless arena of media reporting” against the Senate. He wasn’t merely posing, however. In one exchange with Pimentel, over Mendoza’s seeming nonchalance regarding news reports about the NBN project, he was asked whether he still read the papers. Mendoza replied: “I do not know what to believe in media anymore.”
Pimentel’s rebuttal: “That’s right. I think the feeling is mutual.”
The most resonant of all his sallies, however, came at the start of the hearing. When Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, the chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee, noted that Secretary Romulo Neri, an alleged bribee, could not attend the second hearing because he had fallen ill, Pimentel belatedly asked the chairman for a clarification. What is he sick of, Mr. Chairman? Intestinal flu, Cayetano replied. Pimentel countered: “Is it intestinal flu … or the lack of intestinal fortitude?”
* * *
I am rather more sanguine about the President’s decision to suspend the NBN project than some of my colleagues in media. Yes, the suspension is a halfway measure, really neither here nor there, since the Supreme Court already issued a temporary restraining order. Yes, the suspension is a tactical feint, intended to lull the Senate into considering a premature conclusion to the hearings. Yes, the suspension is a political sop, meant to arrest growing public disgust over the NBN project’s sordid details.
All the same, I think the decision can be considered a small victory for the moderates in the Cabinet (to call them a bloc would be to give them a form they do not have). Favila already laid the predicate, as it were, for a suspension last Thursday, when he explained before the Senate that he was willing to sit down with his Chinese government counterpart to discuss alternatives.
“It is worth exploring with my counterpart what these options and variations [are]. I heard about BOO, BOT, cancellation, abrogation and so on and so forth,” he said at the hearing, answering the one question addressed to him.
It is a victory, because some in the administration are laying the groundwork for amending the project or scrapping it altogether. Too little, too late? Yes, but we’ll take any government’s every attempt to respond to public opinion.
Besides, this is the way politics at this level is done. Since the arrangement requires the consent of another government, the most diplomatic course of action (aside from a collective shrugging of the shoulders on account of the legal injunction) is to call for a review. The hardliners (no, not the ones running China) will balk, in part because they know even a cancellation won’t stop an independent Senate from continuing with its investigation. But reason prevailed, at least in part, last Saturday. Let’s encourage those who made it possible.
* * *
I see the same moderating influence at work in the apparent decision by ex-President Joseph Estrada to accept an absolute pardon, if and when it is offered by his successor in Malacañang.
Having taken a populist position ever since his plunder trial began, Estrada unnecessarily painted himself into a corner. Now the moderates in his camp have found the perfect excuse for him to wiggle out.
I myself do not agree that a convicted plunderer deserves an absolute pardon, but–my point–I do understand how the absolute can be relativized.
* * *
I can’t resist. Here’s another quote from the surprisingly garrulous Wittgenstein, in anticipation of tomorrow’s NBN hearing: “Someone who knows too much finds it hard not to lie.”