the Long View: Congressional cat fight


Congressional cat fight

In the Congress of cats, a full-blown cat fight is going on. Overlooked in the hissing between Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr. and their lady friends was the political tidbit that supposedly sparked the fight in the first place: the suspicion that Floirendo was campaigning for Alvarez to be replaced by Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

But just because Arroyo may have decided to accede to the President’s wishes and remains relatively quiet doesn’t mean she isn’t busy. More than most, she knows how to bide her time and how to accumulate the nuts and bolts of power. What is the speakership today if you are the best-qualified to be premier tomorrow? The ongoing catcalling in the House is only of interest to the extent that it diminishes Alvarez, reducing him as a contender for prime minister in the future. A far more productive use of time is to quietly put in your people without raising a fuss—Alfonso Cusi in energy, Andrea Domingo in Pagcor. Politics is perception, and you can pump up the perception they can serve the President today but be in positions of influence tomorrow when the prospect of being prime minister dawns.

Less talk, less mistake, as Genaro Magsaysay famously advised. Look at what’s happened to poor old Fidel V. Ramos who can’t stop talking, which only reveals how often he has been shortchanged by the president he helped install.

The real question is, how did it so quickly come to pass that President Duterte’s anointed Speaker has to worry about his job security? The Speaker and former First Gentleman Miguel Arroyo may look like twins separated at birth, but the former seems to lack the people skills of the latter. Rep. Ronaldo Zamora once purred: “Politics is about helping people”—so long as you ask nicely.

Writing in 1970, Kerima Polotan painted a vivid word-picture of freshmen congressmen as “All brand-new diputados… already practiced 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.”

Nearly half a century later, the cigarettes are now banished to back rooms beyond the prying eyes of the public, but the behavior is the same. The House of Representatives, the most exclusive fraternity in the country, operates by a code of conduct tougher than the nominal rules suggest. If there’s one thing congressmen hate, it’s being taken for granted. The only thing they hate more than that is to be told what to do without being given the opportunity to save face.

Some congressmen have complained that the Speaker demands obedience without so much as a token effort at face-saving courtship. With so many important votes coming up—including the shift to parliamentary government, whether or not it includes federalism—demanding obedience will invoke the law of diminishing returns. It will become harder and harder to herd cats. Why not find someone more considerate and willing to share?

Because there is only one permanent party in the House—the administration—the real action takes place behind the scenes, among the different blocs with their respective leaders, Japanese-style. You can be sure the congressional recess has these blocs abuzz in their various watering holes, foreign and domestic, counting votes and calculating the odds.

Jose Cojuangco Jr. once recounted a practical lesson about campaigning that was given him by his mentor, Speaker Cornelio Villareal who asked his help in his candidacy for the speakership. Asked how to go about it, Villareal told Cojuangco, “First, you ask them what they want. And you promise them that you will give it to them. That simple.” One such promise, easy enough to make, is: We won’t hold any “conscience vote” against chairmen.

The clincher, of course, is the president. In Raissa Robles’ important book, “Marcos Martial Law: Never Again,” she quotes Villareal (a decade into martial law) wryly commenting in a party that Marcos had convinced them to support martial law because they’d all automatically have seats in the new Batasan “and we believed him.” Do congressmen really believe the leadership of the House is entirely up to them?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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