The Long View: A Congress of cats


A Congress of cats

In the House of Representatives, to the Speaker goes the glory—and control of the purse. But being in the limelight should not be confused with wielding actual power in the House. To determine whether the speaker is actually in control of the ruling majority (or not), one has to look at the relationship between the presidency and the speakership, and between the speaker and the majority leader.

From 1935-1938, the speakership was essentially a decorative position; the president actually determined the ebb and flow of legislation, acting as referee and party whip, and effectively as the majority leader. By 1938, this proved too exhausting, and a speaker and a majority floor leader with real powers were selected.

Today, the point person in the House is Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, arguably one of the most powerful holders of that position in living memory. This is because Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, even in his previous stint as a representative, was never a major mover or shaker and, aside from his closeness to President Duterte, lacks a track record of leadership or camaraderie, or a party franchise and independent means to quickly assert personal dominance in the House (in contrast to his predecessors and successors who were active party men before they assumed the speakership, like Manuel Villar Jr. who compensated for his lack of political ties with an immense personal fortune and by taking over the Nacionalista Party franchise).

We needn’t speculate to see what the real score is as far as the House leadership is concerned. Take the Speaker’s recent chest-beating and baring of fangs, when he threatened representatives unwilling to push the death penalty bill forward with dismissal from leadership positions, among them Deputy Speaker Gloria Arroyo.

She didn’t bat an eyelash. Imagine, for a moment, what someone like Arroyo might think, when faced with a Speaker whose highest achievement as a member of her Cabinet was his removal from it due to—gasp!—allegations of corruption. Why, the only thing that would stop a takeover of the House (to save the Speaker) would be a “presidential veto”—the President convincing Arroyo to stand down.

Maybe he did. What we do know is that a caucus was called. Afterwards, it was announced that congressmen “convinced” the Speaker to amend the bill to make the death penalty optional, while plunder was taken off the table as a capital crime, thus creating a loophole so big that neither convicts nor congressmen can expect to be meted out the death penalty. In true congressional fashion the Speaker proclaimed his defeat a stunning victory.

It would seem fair to assume that Fariñas, as majority leader, has his colleagues’ confidence—that he would ensure everyone, regardless of affiliation, receives their due. This makes for orderly proceedings, a general air of good-natured fellowship, and “win-win” announcements. But it limits the opportunities for cracking the whip. The biggest disciplinary tools of any administration—the allowances and other items the speaker disburses, and the funding for projects that the chief executive can choose to release or put on hold—are only as good as the ability and willingness of the speaker and the president to use them.

Would it hold true in discussing amendments when not every congressman is seduced by the idea of being both a legislator and a Cabinet minister one day? An epidemic of ideas might erupt, as congressmen in the pockets of vested interests start purring about the need to tailor-fit the future constitution to their needs.

But you can only do this every so often considering the limited time frame (three years, the life of the present Congress, which expires when the campaign period for the mid-term elections of 2019 begins) available and the ambitious legislative agenda on hand. A shrewd legislator like Fariñas, looking with pride at how fat and sleek all his colleagues are, might start being selective about trying to herd cats. As the recent caucus proved, no one likes to give up even one of their nine lives.

Twitter: @mlq3; FB:


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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