Philippines President Beinigno Aquino III got justice when the justice committee of the House of Representatives voted an identical 54-4 on all three impeachment complaints against him for insufficiency of substance, Malacanang (the Presidential Palace) said on Tuesday.
With the lopsided voting, the first threat to unseat Aquino passed.
"Note that the group that heard the impeachment complaint is called the committee on justice. So, if that was the decision of the committee of justice, perhaps we can say that that was the outcome of the process," communications secretary Herminio Coloma said in a statement.
Dinagat Rep Kaka Bag-ao said the committee should answer three questions in making its decision: "Is there a need to defend the public from the president? Is he a big obstacle in the development of this country? Should we deny him the one-and-half years to continue his reforms?"
She said she did not believe there was enough basis to impeach the president even though some of his attempts at reform might not have followed the letter of the law.
The committee, chaired by Iloilo Rep Niel Tupas Jr., on Tuesday dismissed each of the three complaints after a four-hour debate that involved testy exchanges between Aquino's allies and critics.
A heckling incident ensued after a student leader in the audience, one of the complainants, shouted "shame on you" in the middle of voting on the third complaint. He was escorted out of the room, along with other members of militant organisations who began chanting anti-Aquino slogans.
"This is a terrible day for the Filipino people," Bayan Muna Rep Neri Colmenares, who endorsed the first impeachment complaint, told the committee after an unsuccessful attempt to stop the voting.
Earlier, Colmenares said the lawmakers who endorsed the complaints should be given more time to explain and defend the impeachment complaints, the first ones to be filed against Aquino for culpable violation of the Constitution, graft and corruption, and betrayal of public trust.
But Tupas was prevailed upon by the Liberal Party-dominated committee to begin voting on the complaints, which last week passed the first test of sufficiency in form.
An impeachment complaint first needs to satisfy requirements on sufficiency in form and substance before it can be judged whether it has sufficient grounds and if there is probable cause. A majority vote is needed each time.
All three impeachment complaints were endorsed by members of the militant Makabayan bloc and filed by their allies. Vastly outnumbered in the justice committee, and even more so in the 290-member House, they were not able to muster support from other members of the minority.
Their first two complaints were lodged in connection with the Disbursement Acceleration Programme (DAP), which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in July. The third was related to the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (Edca) allowing the US military greater access to Filipino bases nationwide.
The DAP is the subject of a pending motion for reconsideration in the Supreme Court. The high court has yet to resolve petitions questioning the constitutionality of Edca.
But Tupas repeatedly stressed that the justice committee held the power to decide the sufficiency of the complaints without regard for pending actions in the Supreme Court.
In defending the sufficiency of substance of the first complaint, Colmenares said Aquino must answer for the 144 billion pesos (US$13 billion) used under the DAP stimulus programme in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
He said the complaint was based not only on the Supreme Court decision declaring the DAP unconstitutional, but also on memorandums and circulars issued by the government with respect to the stimulus programme.
The programme allowed the executive to declare savings before the end of the year, use standby appropriations and realign these for other projects not included in the national budget passed by Congress.
Aquino's serious violations
"These are heavy and serious violations of the constitutional provision that 'No money shall be paid out of the treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation made by law,'" Colmenares said.
"Mr Aquino knowingly and intentionally violated the law prohibiting transfer of appropriation, according to the definition of savings under the law, in cross-border augmentation, and spending not covered by budget. For three years, he repeatedly continued this violation involving billions of pesos in funds," he said.
The debate centred on whether Aquino's purported offences were of such a nature that justified removing him from office with more than one-and-a-half years to go.
'Stealing' Congress' power
Cagayan de Oro Rep Rufus Rodriguez said impeaching a president must involve a serious offence that "strikes at the very heart of the nation," and whose matter of commission must be of the same severity as treason or bribery.
He said he saw no perversity in Aquino's actions.
But Colmenares said there was perversity in the president's act of "stealing" Congress' power of the purse when he realigned savings for projects not listed in the appropriations law.
On the other hand, deputy speaker Giorgidi Aggabao said the committee must exercise "strict and exacting standards for the removal of a popular president.
"Is the offence charges so profoundly serious, so malevolent to the Constitution … that it justifies undoing the vote of some 15 million Filipinos?" he said.
This argument prompted Alliance of Concerned Teachers Rep Antonio Tinio to remind the committee of the "most popular" former President Joseph Estrada, who was impeached by the House before his ouster through a people power uprising in 2001.
"There's no basis. The number of votes provides the president no protection against impeachment. The basis should be whether there was violation of the Constitution, the law and his sworn duty," he said.