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Overstepping the limits of oversight

(Article published in the October 8, 2001 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Charles Louis De Secondat Montesquieu must have turned in his grave when our Congress, in enacting the antimoney-laundering law of 2001, gave, under Section 19 of RA 9160, the Congressional Oversight Committee the power to revise the rules which the anti-money laundering council is mandated to promulgate within thirty (3) days from the effectivity of the law. Such power is, to date, the most serious violation of this cherished principle of separation of powers under the subterfuge of a Congressional Oversight Committee.

For sure, the animal called Congressional Oversight Committee has been with us for about a decade now. Typically composed of equal members from the Senate and the House of Representatives, the committee has the principal duty of monitoring the implementation of significant laws, i.e., those involving the disbursement of funds or affecting the pockets of influential people.

September 24, 1992, Congress created a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee when it enacted RA 7637 creating the Mount Pinatubo Assistance, Resettlement and Development Fund. Three months later, Congress dropped the modifier "Joint" when it enacted RA 7642, increasing the penalties for tax evasion. In this early stage of its development, the avowed purpose is simply to monitor the implementation of the law, nothing more.

Monitoring was conceived by Congress as part of its constitutional duties. Thus, on June 11, 1996, the Congressional Oversight Committee was to discharge oversight functions in the implementation of RA 8182, or the Official Development Assistance Act of 1996, "pursuant to its constitutional duties."

By the end of 1997, the Congressional Oversight Committee was prepared to go big time. Under Section 290 of the Tax Reform Act of 1997 (RA 8424), it was, in addition to monitoring the proper implementation of the law, granted the power "to determine that the power of the commissioner to compromise and a bate is reasonably exercised," as well as review the collection performance and implementation of the programs of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

But still, there remained at least on paper an attempt to confine the function of the committee to monitoring and securing inputs for future legislation. Thus, in the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act of 1997 (RA 8435), the committee was to monitor the implementation of AGRICOM’s recommendations as well as programs and projects related to agriculture, "with a view to providing all legislative support and assistance within the powers of Congress."

For the next two years, until the middle of 2000, this Congressional respect for the dividing line between oversight and meddling with the executive function was maintained. In RA 8747 that created the Congressional Oversight Committee on Y2K Bug, in the Philippine Clean air Act of 1999 (RA 8749), in the Antidumping Act of 1999 (RA 8752), in RA 8792 or the Electronic Commerce Act and RA 9003 (the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000), the primary task of the committee was simply "monitoring," although one can discern a hint of testing the waters when the regulations to implement the Safeguards Measures Act (RA 8800) were required to be issued "after consultations with domestic industries and with the approval of the Congressional Oversight Committee" which was created under that law.

It is only under the Antimoney-Laundering Act of 2001 that Congress was bold enough to invest its Oversight Committee with the power to oversee the implementation of the law "and to review and revise the implementing rules issued by the antimoney-laundering council."

There is a basis, however, for challenging such constitutional adventurism. In the case of the PHILCONSA v. ENRIQUES, 235 SCRA 506, the Supreme Court upheld the veto made by the President of a provision in an appropriations bill that required Congressional approval before releases can be made from the AFP modernization fund. Albeit in an obiter dictum, the Supreme Court expressed the view that "a congressional veto is subject to serious questions involving the separation of powers."

The power to review and revise the implementing rules of the antimoney-laundering council is clearly a form of congressional veto and it is only a matter of time before someone like Rene Saguisag (in his younger years) starts questioning that provision of the Antimoney-Laundering Act of 2001.