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May 16

The Explainer: Speakership Battle

That was a classic Charlie Chaplin short. With most members of the House proclaimed, the contenders for the Speakership of the 15th Congress are already preparing to go into the ring.

So tonight let’s look at the looming Speakership Battle: will it really be a Big Bang at the Batasan or is it all really just shadowboxing?

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

The lame ducks are limping to Congress soon, to formally proclaim our next president and vice-president. But the last hurrah of the 14th Congress is also a time for note-taking and horsetrading, in preparation for the opening of the 15th Congress in July. And the top story among congressmen is, who will be the next Speaker of the House?

Front and center are the soon to be former president Arroyo and her predecessor, former president Estrada who’s strong showing has given him a new lease on political influence. But of the two people are more abuzz over Mrs. Arroyo’s possible plans as as incoming congresswoman.

The mad scramble for chairmanships in the House, as this 1920s Free Press cartoon shows, is nothing new. What’s new is this is the first time someone has decided to jump from Malacanang to the Batasan: and might possibly contest her successor’s choice for the Speakership.

The Speakership has evolved since it was established in 1907 with the election of Sergio Osmena. From 1907 to 1922, the Speaker was the highest Filipino official and therefore uncontested leader.

In 1922 the Nacionalistas split on the question of whether the Speaker should dictate on partymates in the Senate. Thereafter, the House took a subordinate position, politically, to the Senate.

In 1935, the executive department returned to Filipino hands and it was accompanied with an experiment in unicameral government. The 1935 Constitution made the presidency a very powerful institution and immediately it became clear the legislature would be completely subordinate to the presidency.

The first Speaker of the National Assembly, the gentleman seated beside the friar, was Gil Montilla, who was selected as a powerless presiding officer. The President of the Philippines established an office in the premises of the legislative building and personally ran the assembly, directly controlling the majority floor leader.

In 1938, for the first and last time in our history, the ruling party won 100% of the seats in the assembly. But direct executive control of the National Assembly was abandoned in part because it was exhausting the president, and because it was preventing leaders from maturing. Speaker Montilla was replaced with the man in the middle of this photo, Jose Yulo, who, as part of the process of grooming him for the presidency, found the powers of the Speakership restored.

Yulo, who lacked any previous legislative experience, proved an efficient and able Speaker. Among other things, he was able to convince the National Assembly to restore the Senate, and maneuvered constitutional amendments that won overwhelmingly in 1940.

Then World War II intervened, and the postwar era found an exhausted and devastated country shift from the one party state it had become before the war, to a two-party country.

The postwar era was one where presidents were weaker and Congress –this time bicameral- more assertive of its powers. This Free Press cartoon from the early 50s shows President Quirino ending up with a pretty small piece of pork.

By the first two Marcos administrations, the President’s budgetary powers had been severely reduced by jealous congresses. Yet the Palace still had ways and means to at the very least use the House as a foil to the Senate: the House still remained more cooperative than, say, the Senate.

Which is why in 1973, when Marcos finally padlocked Congress after declaring martial law, the House surrendered without a fight and only senators made a symbolic effort to try to convene to challenge martial law.

President Marcos thereafter ruled in a manner closer to the prewar one party era, but with a lot more guns and the ability to rule by decree in case he didn’t like anything his rubber-stamp Batasan did.

With the restoration of our bicameral Congress in 1987, the House stayed in its post-1978 haunts in the Batasan and continued to be more cooperative with the executive than the Senate.

The Senate symbolically returned to the old Legislative Building until evicted by President Ramos in 1998. But even in its pathetic GSIS quarters, the Senate has proven less pliable to executive desires than the House.

Some of the independence of Congress may be owed to the example President Corazon Aquino set in making public manifestations of her respect for Congress. She became the first President since Quezon to actually visit the House of Representatives beyond ritual events like the SONA. She led a protest march to the Senate but didn’t try to bully it legally or financially.

President Ramos instituted the LEDAC as a means to foster consensus with Congress and established a fairly smooth and effective legislative majority in both houses.

On the other hand President Estrada ironically may have been the most respectful of legislative independence but his cutting of House pork barrel funds led to a revolt that supported his impeachment, and his senate majority miscalculated in blocking the opening of that famous second envelope.

President Arroyo on the other hand, pulled out all the stops in ensuring she retained House support even as she battled the Senate. She supported and toppled Speakers depending on her needs.

But if she’s demonstrated the ability to keep everything a number’s game in the House, as she embarks on become Representative Arroyo, does she have the numbers to retain control?

In 2007, when she faced one of the biggest rejections in the Senate ever suffered by an incumbent president, her supporters pointed out she’d managed to keep the House. When I studied the matter for the PCIJ it became clear that no administration, ever, has lost the House.

Most remarkably, this is true even when administrations have lost Malacanan. Quirino lost in 1953, Garcia in 1961, and Macapagal in 1965: but in each case the parties of the losing president, flush with patronage from Malacanan, still won control of the House. The same was true in 1998 when Lakas lost the presidency but kept the House. But also, in each case, the new president swiftly got the majority of congressmen to join the adminstration.

So it’s no surprise Lakas Kampi goes into the next Congress with the biggest bloc. What would be surprising is for it to buck the trend and still retain the House with a president not from their party.

By all accounts, this man, former Speaker Sonny Belmonte, is in line to be the next administration’s candidate for Speaker. We’ll be asking him whether there’s really a fight up ahead for the position he may soon reclaim.

 

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