The Explainer: The House

That was a scene from the Second Season of “Rome,” where Augustus Ceasar embarks on his emperorship by publicly double-crossing a legislature supposedly supreme.

I can imagine there was a similar showdown in Malacanang last week.

In the face of determined, even ruthless, individual leadership, legislatures throughout history have run up the white flag. Yet we consider legislatures essential to governance. As our own House of Representatives marks the centennial of its foundation, it’s a good time to reflect on our own love-hate relationship with our Congressmen.


I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.


I. Thickly larded


Last week, last Thursday to be precise, I went to the House of Representatives to see what the Speaker of the House would end up doing with the inoculation known as the Pulido impeachment complaint.

As I prowled the galleries and exchanged political gossip with some representatives on the floor, the scene around me brought back memories of past scenes in that House, and brought to mind a song.

Through the magic of television, we can play, for you, both the scenes and the song playing in my mind that day.

There’s a garden, what a garden

Only happy faces bloom there

And there’s never any room there

For a worry or a gloom there

Oh there’s music and there’s dancing

And a lot of sweet romancing

When they play the polka

They all get in the swing

Every time they hear that com-pa-pa

Everybody feels so tra-la-la

They want to throw their cares away

They all go lah-de-ah-de-ay

Then they hear a rumble on the floor, the floor

It’s the big surprise they’re waiting for

And all the couples form a ring

For miles around you’ll hear them sing

Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun

Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run

Zing boom tararrel, sing out a song of good cheer

Now’s the time to roll the barrel, cuz the gang’s all here

Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da

Hey! Hey! Hey!

Roll it out, roll it out, roll out the barrel

Da-da-da da-da da-da da-da-da-da-da

Sing a song of good cheer

‘Cause the whole gang is here

Roll it out, roll it out

                                                                     Let’s do the beer barrel polka


Depending on how you look at it, we’ve come a long way, or sunk way, way, low, in the century of nearly uninterrupted legislative experience that made our House of Representatives what it is, today.

Under Spain, moderate Filipino reformists pined for representation in the Spanish Cortes. When they threw off Spanish rule, they nonetheless modeled their bourgeois congress in Malolos after it.

Under America, we aspired, first, for representation in a lower house inaugurated on October 19, 1907 and then flexed our political muscles by adopting a bicameral legislature in 1916 to counteract the American executive. These legislatures, we loved.

Tyrant rulers from the Japanese to Ferdinand Marcos, who was also corrupt, and corrupt but genuinely democratic rulers have used rubberstamp national assemblies to decorate their regimes and advance their personal or partisan interests; these legislatures we hated. And that about accounts for all the legislatures we have had.

We have measured our democratic maturity by the transformation of a unicameral assembly under the Commonwealth into the bicameral Congress of our present Republic: legislatures we loved to deride yet sought to restore when they vanished because the redeeming few unquestionably patriotic leaders we have had came from there.

Conquerors and constitutions have come and gone, and yet the ultimate aspiration of the Filipino people remains the same: to express their nationhood by means of a legislature, which betrays an instinctively correct sense of checks and balance and John Locke’s assertion that the first principle of political organization is that no man may be judge in his cause. Put simply no one can be trusted to be judge and jury or president and congress all in one

The catalog of legislatures, for those who didn’t pay attention to their teachers in school, may be given short shrift.

Token representation in foreign legislatures, twice: in the Spanish Cortes (when liberal and anticlerical forces held brief sway in Spain) and in the United States Congress (where we could send resident commissioners to the lower house to talk but not vote from 1907 to 1946).

Appointive legislatures thrice: the Malolos Congress; the Philippine Commission from 1901 to 1916 (with an elective lower house, called the Assembly, from 1907-1916); and during the Japanese occupation from 1943-44.

We have experienced unicameralism twice, under the Commonwealth from 1935 to 1941 and during martial law with the farcical Batasan Pambansa from 1978-86, where our politicians got the first and addictive taste of parliamentarism nonetheless; certainly its most flavorful feature which is the combination of the appropriation and the spending power. In other words, they could write their own shopping list and spend our money as they pleased though their pleasure was somewhat restrained by an overbearing president-for-life who used the prime minister out of parliament as his footstool.

And we have had bicameral legislatures thrice: from 1916-1935; from 1946 to 1972; and from 1987 to the present—where the lower house is aptly that and almost consistently ignored and derided, and the upper house is aptly uppity, self-serving, gratuitously obstructionist, and thickly larded.

So well larded that indeed, E.Z. Izon in the 1960s would draw an editorial cartoon, titled self-portrait of a congressman:

But in the same magazine, the Free Press, the House and its members had been lampooned time and again. Here are two from the 1920s, cruelly criticizing members of the House-

For their motivations:

And for their fighting over committee chairmanships:

And here’s another, from the late 1930s, criticizing congressmen for the way they secured electoral success:

Yes, you can say, the more things change, the more they remain the same –but that can be said of any congress or parliament on earth. Much as we’d like to think so, our congressmen are no better or worse, than their colleagues in the profession of politics abroad.

When we return, the crucial importance of the Centennial of the modern-day House.


II. Independence always


That was a continuation of the same scene from “Rome,” where Augustus Caesar makes legislators an offer they can’t refuse. But of course at the end of the road Augustus began, was the lunacy of Nero. Timid politicians are still preferable to uncontrollable megalomaniacs.

In 1907, Filipinos for the first time, elected their own representatives. Our first Republic had fallen only six years before. A year later, on June 19, 1908, Rizal Day, and only five days after the 10th anniversary of our proclamation of independence at Malolos, a third declaration of independence would be made.

Our first declaration of independence was made by a Manileno, in August, 1896, but the revolution Andres Bonifacio launched was crushed and he himself executed by his countrymen in 1897.

Our second declaration of independence was on June 12, 1898. It was made by a self-appointed Tagalog dictator. Only afterwards was Aguinaldo’s dictatorship transformed into a constitutional presidency. Our first Republic ceased to exist with Aguinaldo’s capture by the Americans in 1901.

Apolinario Mabini, reflecting on our defeated Republic, asked should Filipinos do. He recommended reconciliation between Filipinos and Americans. But he also said that while independence by means of war had failed, independence itself must be pursued by peaceful means. In fact, he said, the value of the Filipino-American War was that it made our national resolve to be free, a permanent aspiration.

By 1907, Mabini was dead; the second prime minister of the first republic, Pedro Paterno, wanted to be the first Speaker of the First Philippine Assembly.

Do you remember this poem? It ends this way-


I shall be telling this with a sigh   

Somewhere ages and ages hence: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—  

I took the one less traveled by,     

And that has made all the difference.


The road less traveled, at least in our neck of the woods, was democracy. Paterno lost his bid for the Speakership to a young man from Cebu, who was only 29: Sergio Osmena. The old generation of Malolos had failed; it would be for a younger generation to succeed.

And so, our third declaration of independence on June 19, 1908 was made by an elected Cebuano, Speaker of the First Philippine Assembly, Sergio Osmena.

Unlike the independence proclaimed at Malolos, which no nation recognized and whose government was destroyed forever, the ideal proclaimed by Osmena has resulted in the government we have today, for better or worse, and our marking our 61st year of uninterrupted independence this year.

A few years back, I worked on a project where we had Mark Gil perform the speech Osmena delivered in the Ayuntamiento. Let’s listen to a portion of it.

Osmena was Speaker from 1907 to 1922, then Manuel Roxas became Speaker from 1922 to 1933. Roxas, perhaps, had the hardest time of all: at one point, there was a problem with congressmen bringing guns with them in the session floor; another time, a fellow congressman kicked Speaker Roxas in the shins during a heated debate.

Most Speakers, though, have been on the model of Osmena and Yose Yulo, Speaker of the National Assembly from 1938 to 1941, and who proposed the restoration of the Senate. He was a calm, efficient man and somehow, kept congressmen in line.

The story of how these various Houses worked is in a book I first proposed and helped write, this one, “Assembly of the Nation,” the publication of which our guest tonight made possible.

Let me set the scene for you, for the man we’re about to meet.

Here is Kerima Polotan, writing on February 7, 1970, three months before I was born, about the State of the Nation Address that launched the First Quarter Storm:

One had not fought one’s way through to stand guard over a half empty hall, along with half a hundred TV cameras, and the minor functionaries of this Republic, the second officials, the junior assistants, who strutted and poked and pointed—“Mahina ang audio!”—but there were compensations.


The compensations, she wrote, read like a who’s who of premartial law politics –and today’s politics. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Eduardo Cojuangco, the husband of Gretchen Oppen, was there, in expensive barong; and so was Joe Aspiras, the ex-press secretary, in barong; and also Joe de Venecia, whom the papers called a Marcos Liberal, who had just shed (again according to the papers) an old love and acquired a new one, in coat and tie; a dear friend from Dumaguete: Herminio (Minion) Teves, the younger twin of Lorence, in coat and tie; Rafael Aquino, the Sorsogueño from Butuan City, in coat and tie.


Polotan described this list as

 All brand new diputados, eager to be of service to the country, but already practised in the art (and craft) of winning people and influencing friends. You could tell—they strode as though they belonged (and did they not?), crossed their legs, scratched their colleagues’ back, held languid cigarettes, laughed their rich solid laugh.


Our guest tonight was a brand new diputado then, the day President Marcos was attacked with a papier mache crocodile as he emerged from Congress, and in the ensuing mayhem, street rioting resulted bringing students to the point, that they attacked the gates of Malacanang with a firetruck.

Now our guest is the longest-serving Speaker in the history of our country, on his fifth term as Speaker though not in a straight line.


My view


When our guest was a freshly-elected congressman, the House of Representatives had embarked on building a bullet-proof glass wall around its session floor. The purpose was to protect the representatives from the people they represented.

The story of the House of Representatives is about our legislatures being the personification of the Filipino mistrust of the executive power and the desire to curb its power, combined with our unsurprised discovery that each new congress never fits the bill. Yet we continue to want it, as a symbolic foil to the country’s real ruler in every aspect of the national life. The reason is that, if we cannot trust the Congress to come up with good laws or even check the executive, we trust the executive even less to make the laws himself—as Marcos did when he combined both powers in his person and robbed the country blind.

Indeed congress, of which the House is the lower but more senior chamber, like the famous definition of democracy as the worst form of government except for all the others, may be described in the public perception as democracy’s worst institution except for the other two.

Take the inoculation I witnessed last week. The House did it, but it was done in the president’s interests, and made possible because of a self-serving ruling by the supreme court.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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