The Long View: Devolution of the House

Devolution of the House
By Manuel L. Quezon III

Back in 1999, then-Speaker Manuel Villar Jr. gifted his fellow congressmen with an old book. Its title was “Rules of the House of Representatives, Commented and Annotated,” by Inocencio B. Pareja. Published in 1963, it represented what, by then, was half a century of legislative practice and precedents, so thoroughly and conveniently put together that over 30 years after it was published, Villar found it useful to recommend its reading to his colleagues.

I can think of countless times the book would have come in handy, for members of the House, the media and the public, over the eight years since Villar caused the redistribution of that book. The many breathtaking examples of parliamentary ignorance, verging on political idiocy, certainly amounting to the height of institutional irresponsibility, that have come to characterize goings-on in the House, and the disorder, stubborn disregard for the rules, and obvious ignorance among the representatives that sit in it that could have been avoided, are mind-boggling. It’s not that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; it’s that pride in wallowing in ignorance is such a destructive thing.

Pareja writes, “Since October 16, 1907, the Speaker has always been elected by viva voce vote. In the election, the Secretary calls the roll and records the viva voce vote cast by each Member.”

A viva voce vote, incidentally, is what differentiates an elected representative and the manner in which she votes from the manner of voting of the electorate that elected her. “It is sometimes opposed to ballot; as, the people vote by ballot, but their representatives in the legislature, vote viva voce,” as one legal lexicon puts it. A citizen is entitled to a secret ballot; an elected representative is never entitled to vote secretly, because a representative at all times must be held accountable for every vote cast.

In recent days, a proposal has been made by partisans of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s pet party, Kampi, for the speakership to be decided not by means of a viva voce vote, but by a secret ballot. I never thought I’d be tempted to agree with the current incarnation of Edcel Lagman (you know, his pro-administration-at-the-expense-of-everything-else position). But when he said, “Secrecy is the cover for turncoats,” I came close to agreeing with him.

Close, but not quite. Lagman missed the point. The obnoxious thing about the Kampi secret ballot proposal is that it is a suggestion that subverts the very nature of a legislature: a place where representatives freely and openly debate, and openly vote and submit to being held accountable for each and every vote they cast. A human might as well propose to transform himself into a chimpanzee.

If that weren’t bad enough, Kampi argues that anyway, each Congress determines its own rules. It’s true that when the terms of all the members end, a Congress passes into history and with it go its rules. When the new members of the House are elected, they join the new half of the Senate and constitute a new Congress. On June 30, the 13th Congress passed into history; this is why, next week, the 14th Congress convenes. But the rules can only be mangled up to a point.

There is also a reason the new Congress will call itself the 14th: It is part of a line, it is heir to a tradition, it is bound by precedent.

In 1949, Pareja pointed out that “As Presiding Officer [because, until a new House elects its new Speaker, the Secretary of the House has to preside over the process of electing the new leadership], the Secretary refused to entertain a motion to elect the Speaker by secret ballot and reaffirmed that election of the Speaker, according to the practice, has always been viva voce.” Also, in 1958, “As Presiding Officer in the inaugural session of the Fourth Congress, the Acting Secretary of the House refused to entertain a motion that election of the Speaker be by secret ballot, but submitted the motion to the House for decision, which motion was lost.”

Each legislature’s practices is built upon those of the legislatures that preceded it; and our House must submit not only to the way previous Houses did it, but how any lawmaking body aspiring to be taken seriously does it, too, and no legislature selects its leadership by secret ballot.

This year is a special one, as far as the House is concerned. In October, it will be a century since the evolution of the present House of Representatives began. Prior to that, we’d had the Malolos Congress, but it was, to our political history, what the Neanderthals are to us: an authentic branch of development, but an evolutionary dead end. In the First Philippine Assembly of 1907, the assemblymen had a choice: to adopt the rules of the Spanish Cortes, or adopt the rules of the US House of Representatives. The assemblymen who’d served in the Malolos Congress preferred the Spanish rules; the younger members preferred the American rules. The younger generation won.

Since then, interrupted only by the first few years of the Japanese Occupation and the first six years of martial law, the House has endured, and its story represents a century of practical experience in legislative work. Kampi is resurrecting a proposal thrown out twice by previous Congresses, and for good reasons that date all the way back to 1907, when Sergio Osmeña became our first democratically elected speaker.

In biological terms, “devolution” is the evolution of a species into more “primitive” forms. Politically, this is a process taking place before our eyes in the House of Representatives. Day by day, from upright homo sapiens, the members of the House are showing a marked preference for walking on their knuckles, preparatory to climbing back up trees, in order to live in the branches and throw feces at each other.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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