Honor, humor and humiliation in the Senate

Sen. Robinhood Padilla is right that he did not violate any rules of the Senate when he combed his mustache during a public hearing last month of the Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs, the footage of which has gone viral on social media.

The issue gained traction again last week after former senator Frank Drilon called attention to the eroding public perception of the Senate as an institution “by what has been observed as the lack of proper decorum on the part of certain senators.”

Drilon urged Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri to “draw the line” by showing “displeasure with what’s happening” in the chamber. “The burden is really on the Senate president and the Senate leadership to make sure that the prestige of the Senate and the credibility of the Senate [are] maintained,” said Drilon, who served as Senate president for four terms.

Drilon underscored the importance of maintaining the prestige and effectiveness of the Senate “in order that the system of check and balance would remain.”

The former senator did not single out any senator, and Padilla said he did not feel alluded to.

The actor-turned-senator attributed Drilon’s remarks to a generation gap.

Nung panahon nila medyo honorable din ‘yung mga luku-luko. Medyo ngayon ho talaga ‘yung mga luku-luko bastos na rin, kaya kaya kailangan ho talagang tigasin ‘yung mga senador n’yo (During their time, the crazy ones were also honorable. But this time, the crazy ones have become disrespectful, so your senators need to be firm),” Padilla said.

During the May 16 and 23 public hearings on the alleged cover-up in the P6.7-billion shabu haul in an anti-drug operation in Manila on Oct. 8, 2022, Padilla was not the only senator who misbehaved.

Words such as anak ng baka, p*tang-i*a, suntukin, b*yag, pusang a*, napakasinungaling,  ginagago, and other expletives, humiliating words and unparliamentary language were uttered one after another as committee chairman Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa and Sens. Raffy Tulfo, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada expressed exasperation while grilling police officers who invoked their right against self-incrimination and right to remain silent, and refused to answer questions.

Early in the hearing, Padilla must have been feeling bored while listening to Tulfo’s opening remarks, in which the latter focused on the reported irregularities in the 2022 anti-drug operation that he said are destroying the Philippine National Police (PNP) as an institution.

Padilla, slumped in a swivel chair, combed his mustache not once, not twice, but five times in less than five minutes during the May 16 hearing. He was checking his mobile phone in between and nodding his head once in a while, seemingly in agreement with Tulfo’s statements.

Indeed, nothing in the Senate rules prohibits what he did, but basic public decency does.

Known as the Philippine cinema’s “bad boy” for portraying anti-hero gangster roles in the movies, Padilla has refused to recognize that he did anything wrong.

“Lahat ng paggalang, lahat ng pagpupugay ay ibinibigay po natin ‘yan sa lahat ng senador. Kung paggalang lang po ang usapan ay hindi po tayo magpapahuli d’yan (All the respect, all the courtesy, we are giving that to all the senators. If we talk about respect, we won’t be left behind that),” the neophyte lawmaker said in a briefing with Senate reporters on June 19.

Padilla’s definition of respect may have been limited to saying “po” and “opo” or calling a colleague “boss” or “amo.” Has he forgotten that good manners command respect? He may be thinking that the 27 million votes he got in the May 2022 elections gave him the license to do whatever he wants, throwing into the dustbin any sense of propriety even at public events.

He may have become too familiar with having cameras rolling in his presence. But unlike in filmmaking, the live streaming of legislative hearings and plenary sessions on social media platforms does not have a director who would shout “cut” or keep him out of the frame when he does something improper or uncivilized.

He and the other senators in the hearing are used to bardagulan — street slang for short and witty retorts — in real and reel life, and he has now taken that even into formal proceedings such as legislative hearings and plenary sessions.

Revilla and Estrada are movie actors, too, and have played gangster roles. De la Rosa was a police officer and served as PNP chief from 2016 to 2018. He has dealt with “police characters,” street jargon for crime suspects and arrogant people using vulgar language. Tulfo, in his radio and TV programs, berates police officers and government officials who are the subjects of complaints from his listeners.

Former Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III may have anticipated the “noise” happening in the legislature now. In his valedictory address in June 2022, Sotto had “one final and earnest appeal” to the [current] Congress: to maintain the integrity and independence of the Senate.”

Drilon noted that plenary deliberations had become “noisy” on some occasions and that senators “could barely understand one another.” While admitting that this also happened during his term, he said the situation was immediately addressed before it could get out of hand.

On May 17, Zubiri suspended the session “because of a bit of unruly and noisy behavior in the back of the session floor.” He said senators must be reminded that as national leaders, “we should always follow proper decorum.”

But Padilla maintained that he did nothing wrong, even insisting that while the current members of the Senate may not be “honorable-looking,” they are taking their job seriously. “Ako ay hinalalal para malapit sa tao, hindi maging mukhang kagalang-galang (I was elected to be closer to the people, not to look honorable.)”

Being honorable is earned, he said, noting that he had removed the honorable title from his office door the first time he went there.

Former senator Panfilo Lacson, in a tweet on June 15, had this to say on the decorum brouhaha: “Nothing wrong with winning an election using popularity and gimmickry — that’s all part of democracy. The thing is, once you take your oath of office, stop being a showman and start becoming a statesman. Honor, not humor.”


The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.