Three Speakers of the House of Representatives
by Manuel L. Quezon III
As I suspected, the announcement from the palace, that there wouldn’t be fireworks in the house on Monday but instead, hopefully a tidy handover of power on Tuesday, was a ruse. The palace was hoping that the galleries would be empty, the media absent, and public attention unfocused, so that it could minimize the risks if Speaker de Venecia, Jr., who was deposed from the speakership of the Philippine House of Representatives, decided to go down fighting.
In his blog, a congressman, Ruffy Biazon, has an interesting account of the maneuvering behind the scenes. He wrote, “Both sides claimed they had the numbers and for a time, it was seen as a bluffing game. But it became clearer after the majority caucus held in Malacanang. It was a make-or- break caucus for JDV, where he was expecting (probably more accurately, hoping) that the president would step in and advise everyone to uphold the status quo.”
But then, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo intervened: “According to information I gathered, the president instead tried to craft a set of procedures on how the showdown would happen, which was seen by others as the final nail on the coffin of JDV’s Speakership. On its face, it is a neutral act, but congressmen saw it as a withdrawal of support from JDV and a blessing to the initiative of her sons to oust the Speaker.”
As it was, since no one really believes the palace or trusts it, everyone due to show up on Monday showed up on Monday. At first things looked like they were headed for business as usual until Rep. Abraham Mitra of Palawan, soon after the referral of bills, rose and threw down the gauntlet.
He moved that the speakership be declared vacant. Ronaldo Zamora of the opposition tried to derail the motion by rising on a point of inquiry but fellow minority member (by the name of “Ompong” Plaza) then rose and derailed Zamora’s inquiry. Rep. Simeon Datumanong, who was presiding, suspended the session. At that point, two hours of furious caucus-holding and negotiations began.
The two hours were spent basically hammering out two issues between the Nograles and the de Venecia camps.
The Rep. Prospero Nograles (the President’s candidate for speaker), or palace camp wanted to deny de Venecia the opportunity to demand nominal voting where each and every congressman would have to rise and put their vote for or against the motion, on the record. Furthermore, the palace wanted to deny de Venecia the opportunity to make a valedictory speech.
Along the way, de Venecia clung to the hope he could, somehow, preserve his office and at one point, inquired with Rep. Erin Tanada of the Liberal Party contingent whether, if he came out strongly enough against the president, the Liberals would reconsider their pledge to support the palace’s candidate. Tanada responded by going out to the lobby and telling media they were foursquare behind Nograles (later on, after de Venecia’s peroration, Rep. Jun Abaya, great grandson of Emilio Aguinaldo and member of the LP, had the decency to try to register his vote on the motion by nodding; but Rep. Fuentebella, presiding at the time, insisted, rightly, that every congressman rise from his chair, go the mike, and state clearly what their vote was; Abaya sheepishly went to the mike and mumbled “Yes”).
At a certain point, about a half hour before he returned to the floor, de Venecia apparently knew his game was up and summoned his wife and son to his office. They returned to the gallery about ten minutes before the soon-to-be ex-speaker reappeared on the floor — there was an audible gasp from the galleries when he took his place by the rostrum. All the while, Rep. Mitra had hovered by the microphone repeatedly asking that the session be resumed and his motion carried out. The Arroyo brothers at various time surveyed the scene with proprietary interest and from time to time, Mikey Arroyo would disappear.
So when de Venecia returned, the question became, would he be permitted a swan song? Villafuerte and Pabling Garcia’s blustering were foiled by the intervention of Rep. Teodoro Locsin, Jr., Rep. Dilangalen, and the father of Chiz Escudero; in a nuanced and quite interesting ruling from the chair, Rep. Fuentebella said that a congressman has a paramount right to free speech, by means of making a privilege speech, after which the division of the House on the question of Mitra’s motion could then take place.
As for the speech of de Venecia, it was long, often confused, a catalog of his past support of the president, and an indictment of the president’s sons, whom he accused of controlling appropriations and of their business cronies; and he intimated knowledge that indeed, attempts to cheat the 2004 presidential elections took place.
The great defect of de Venecia as a politician was revealed for all to see, when his often rambling speech kept returning to a complaint that he was speaking off the cuff, because he’d been assured — and believed — that he’d have until Tuesday to state his case to his peers. Obviously, the palace was not inclined either to keep its word or do him any favors, yet the man thought that a pledge was a pledge. In a nutshell, that is the great defect of truly traditional politicians — they believe that there are some lines no one will cross.
To be sure, presidents can’t tolerate disloyal speakers. After Manuel Villar, Jr. transmitted the articles of impeachment against Joseph Estrada to the Senate, the ruling coalition deposed him and elected Rep. Fuentebella speaker instead. This time, de Venecia had to go, and hardly anyone sympathized with him.
Now, he is on probation: opponents of the administration will more likely than not, wait and see if he will fill in the details of the official chicanery he only painted in bold strokes in his valedictory. People inclined to be neutral will be watching, as well.
The signal sent by this move is that Kampi is now the real mover and shaker in the House. It hatched the plot to oust de Venecia, a party man and leader with stature equal to, at least, the president; it sustained that plot and accomplished it; in other words, it is the party that matters, and its gaining the greatest numbers is merely a matter of time. As will be its deposing, in turn, Nograles the moment, say, the president decides that he has become a liability.
For example, the enmity between Nograles, a third termer out of the House by 2010 anyway, and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, is famous. By all accounts, Duterte isn’t going to take Nograles’ election as speaker sitting down. Who will the president need more, in the coming years, if there are efforts to accomplish Charter Change?
After Nograles delivers in the House, the effort will sink or swim depending on how local governments marshal their forces. At which point the president will need Duterte more than she needs Nograles. And his being a member of Lakas-CMD will matter little by that time.