Subservience of Philippine Congress Is Nothing New
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Filipinos have a propensity to treat the executive power as suspiciously alien and prone to do harm, while holding elected legislative representatives in contempt even though they hold them up to the highest duty of checking executive abuse, which they cannot do without enjoying a measure of public support. Which, it must be said, they frequently do not deserve.
Thus the first Philippine Congress in 1899 was about the desire to trim down the powers of the dictator-president Emilio Aguinaldo; and under the Americans, the Philippine Commission was rocked by the efforts of Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera who once said, “I have not accepted American sovereignty for the pleasure of being under the dominion of a foreign nation, but because I thought that such a dominion was necessary to educate us in self-government.” De Tavera’s role would be echoed by all the successful politicians during the colonial period, who used the Philippine Senate as a base from which to launch political attacks against American governors-general.
Filipino politicians during the American era belonged to a generation that had to secure their goal of national independence in a game whose rules were drawn up and whose play was refereed by Americans. Therefore, the logical thing was for Filipinos to learn how to play American-style, and play it well. This, they did. A piece of trivia, to illustrate the point: It was not until 1922 that English began to be used in the Philippine Legislature — the year that the old revolutionary leaders were completely eclipsed and more media-savvy politicians emerged as the dominant players in politics.
The politics born under American colonial tutelage was real politics. Not the languid acts of a “directing class,” a group of gentlemen leading the nation according to an aristocratic ethos. This was sweaty, rough, ruthless politics. The politics of the poker table, of rooms thick with cigar smoke. Of ward leaders and party machines. This was politics as modern as the inventions revolutionizing the age: Wireless radio, airplanes. This was politics geared towards winning and winning, again and again, through the systematic demolition of one’s opponents and the depletion of their resources because every victory made the next one so much easier. Machine politics, Tammany Hall politics. The politics of the speakeasy and the Jazz Age. The youth loved it.
But after World War II, it was passé. In the United States alone, politics changed with the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt: The era of big local kingpins gave way to the power of the party with its national (no longer merely a group of local alliances) constituency and leadership. In the Philippines, the Japanese Occupation, which reduced the established political leadership to the defensive — and dependent — role of collaborators, and the rise of alternative movements, such as the Huks, graphically revealed the limitations and abuses of the pre-war “tayo-tayo” (literally, “us-us”) system. Too many people insisted on being among the “tayo” of “tayo-tayo,” as to produce too many chiefs and too few Indians.
The prophets of the new politics, the politics of direct appeal to the public — and not just the voters, reached out even those too young to vote in the hope they might persuade their elders. It was revolutionary in the French sense as calling for mass mobilization, indiscriminate recruitment and collective self-perpetuating ignorance.
Another crucial thing to understand about the Philippine Congress is that it violates the physical law that nature abhors a vacuum. Indeed, US legislatures waxed powerful with wan presidents but in the Philippine Congress a political vacuum in the executive merely triggers an adjournment as congressmen make a beeline for the exit.
The 1935 Constitution envisioned a strong presidency, so the presumed capacity of the legislature to check that power was inherent in the framework established. But capacity is one thing and inclination quite another. To be sure, the legislature would increase its influence over national affairs vis-a-vis the executive in succeeding administrations but never enough to overshadow the powerful office which, ultimately, always called the shots. This was true even with regard to the power of the purse, which is the sole and defining prerogative of Congress, the lower house in particular.
From 1935 to the late 1940s, the president had virtual carte blanche to move funds around in the declared items of appropriation; starting with Elpidio Quirino in the early 1950s, the Congress began reasserting its traditional prerogative to fix budgets and set expenditures.
It even passed a law putting a cap on the national borrowings so that, when the comparable societies of Latin America would plunge periodically into bankruptcy the Philippine economy moved steadily — never spectacularly but always steadily.
This is not to say that Congress does only the bidding of whoever is president. That would miss important nuances in legislative acts. Congress can act on its own and display an admirable originality, a startling craftsmanship and an unexpected wisdom — all from 220 members who are brimming with ideas and insights that are bottled up by a firm tradition of legislative subservience. So that when the president shows either a complete indifference or only selective interest in a certain topic of legislation — in the latter case concerned only that there be legislation on a subject without any particularly strong idea of what kind — Congress fulfills its hallowed purpose well: The making of laws which, by definition, should be in the public interest.
But when a president asks Congress to jump — the House of Representatives, as an old Filipino joke goes, always asks, “from what floor?” And that is what’s happening now.