What is there to say about the ongoing cringe-worthy public quarrel between Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr.? Maybe only this: it’s just the latest in a string of stories that could be titled congressmen behaving badly.
But just like the sort of tabloid-type stories recently hogging the headlines, what congressmen think of themselves –as distinguished ladies and gentlemen, if your honors please—is not necessarily borne out by the facts.
For example, woe to any citizen who makes the mistake of not calling a congressman “your honor.”
But as the gentleman in the barong tagalog and white pants you see on your screen, walking ahead of Douglas MacArthur once revealed, congressmen have no right to be called “your honor.”
According to that man, whose name was Jose E. Romero, one-time majority floor leader of the National Assembly and later, Secretary of Education, congressmen being called “your honor” is a case of being lost in translation.
What actually used to be the case, he said, was when legislators still debated in Spanish, they called each other “su Honoria,” which is more properly rendered in English as “the distinguished gentleman.” But people literally translated it as “your honor,” which is a term of address only two types of people are entitled to: judges, and the mayor of Manila.
But try telling that to our lawmakers. The point is, there is a difference between having a position and acting in accordance with that position.
In the speakership battle of 1922, Manuel Roxas ended up winning but quickly learned that respect wasn’t automatic.
In one heated squabble on the House floor, Speaker Roxas suffered the indignity of a fellow congressman coming up to him and kicking him in the shins. Think of it: this was sixty, seventy years ahead of the fistfights we see on TV in Russia, Korea, or Taiwan.
The 1920s was an interesting period, at least if you judge it by the editorial cartoons coming out in the Philippines Free Press at the time.
Its editorial cartoonist loved to lampoon the scramble for power, such as the scramble for committee chairmanships in Congress.
But the Free Press cartoonist was particularly savage in lampooning the bad behavior of the congressmen. Kicking the Speaker in the shins was nothing compared to what else used to go on: fistfights and the pointing of guns at each other, for example. That is, when they weren’t busy pointing their guns at anyone else who offended them.
The era before martial law had even more pointed commentaries in the Free Press, courtesy of its editorial cartoonist, EZ Izon.
You can track the terms of abuse current at the time by the cartoons Izon drew. Perhaps it was inevitable that love of the pork barrel led to cartoons like this one, entitled self-portrait of the politician.
By the early 1970s the political zoo had expanded to include the crocodile, an equal opportunity animal not restricted to Congress, but every institution, it seemed.
Where did all this pictorial abuse come from? Just like today, the process was helped along by our distinguished representatives themselves.
This was an era when Nick Joaquin, writing in the same magazine, penned an unforgettable word portrait of Speaker Jose B. Laurel Jr. He wrote how, in one late-night session, Laurel, perhaps having recently refreshed himself in one of the Roxas Boulevard nightclubs congressmen liked to visit, showed up drunk and proceeded to wrestle with the microphone.
To be fair to Laurel, he had pretty good reasons to get roaring drunk. Who wouldn’t end up drinking, with a President like Ferdinand Marcos? Laurel had helped recruit Marcos into the Nacionalista Party, but what he got from it was Marcos plotting with his former partymates, the Liberals, to oust Laurel and replace him that mummified-looking guy on the right, Cornelio Villareal, who was from the Liberal Party, even if Marcos was now a Nacionalista.
All of these intramurals were taking place in the late 60s and early 70s, when radicalism was on the rise, and hippies weren’t about to be respectful to their elders. In 1970, the House of Representatives got so fed up with students heckling congressmen that it built a bulletproof wall in its Session Hall to protect its members from the public.
But let me close with another of EZ Izon’s editorial cartoons before martial law.
This drawing says it all. To those whom much is given, little seems to be expected. Recently, the New York Times has gotten crucified because of the word-portrait it painted of the son of a governor who grew up to be a longtime mayor, and now president. But that isn’t a unique picture. It is the picture, as political scientists will tell you, of the vast majority of congressmen, too.
Unless you’re a saint, chances are every one of you watching this, has behaved badly sometime in the past. Assistant Secretary Banaag advises all of us to remember our elected leaders aren’t priests or saints, after all. This is true. Maybe she should have added something else. Not all of us who’ve made mistakes have bodyguards, either. Which, at the end of the day, is why congressmen can behave badly, and the rest of the country can’t. It’s the luck of the draw, after all.