Behind jockeying for legislative committees, a proxy war among power brokers

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 12 2019 11:26 AM

Security personnel inspect the House of Representatives session hall in this file photo. Congressmen and senators are battling for committee leaderships ahead of the opening of the 18th Congress in July. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA -- The battle for leadership in the Philippines’ bicameral Congress has triggered intense negotiations over vital committee chairmanships typically decided based on political blocs, seniority — and by Malacañang.

But also working behind the scenes are special business interest groups, seeking congressional leaders that they can influence, according to veteran lawmakers from both chambers interviewed by ABS-CBN News.

In the House of Representatives, considered most important are the committees on appropriations, ways and means, accounts, justice, and the majority leader position, a senior administration congressman said.

Some congressmen, he said, might gun for committees such as public works, natural resources, games and amusement, or agriculture depending on certain business interests they might be seeking to “protect.”

“If you would like to protect your mining business, you would want (the) natural resources (committee),” the congressman told ABS-CBN News on condition of anonymity.

“Yung mga may-ari ng casinos will try to make sure na handpicked nila yung chairman ng games and amusement (committee).”

(Casino owners will try to make sure that they handpick the chairman of the games and amusements committee.)

CAPTURE

In the case of the Senate, a former senator recounted how he was approached by a colleague who saw him signing a committee report.

“Ano yang pinipirmahan mo? Kumikita ka ba dyan? May pera yan,” he quoted the other senator as saying.

(What are you signing? Do you make money off that? There's money to be had.)

“If you’re going to use your committee, you can make a lot of money,” the former senator told ABS-CBN News.

Even more developed democracies encounter the problem with big businesses helping finance certain candidates and expecting “payoff” later on, said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

“If you are financed by the very interests that are going to be the very subject of your oversight and regulation, then that is capture and that’s not healthy at all,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“That’s even more destructive of the independence of Congress.“

PROXY WAR

House rules organize the chamber’s 61 standing committees based on the “proportional representation” of majority and minority congressmen.

Political blocs jockey for chairmanships before throwing their support behind a certain candidate for speaker.

1PACMAN Rep. Michael Romero, leader of the 55-member party-list coalition, is pushing for proportional representation in committee chairmanships.

Since party-list congressmen occupy 20 percent of the House seats, they should handle the same proportion of committees, he told ANC last week.

At least 3 major contenders have emerged for the speakership: Lord Allan Velasco of Marinduque (PDP-Laban), Alan Peter Cayetano (NP) of Taguig, and Ferdinand Martin Romualdez (Lakas) of Leyte.

Political science professor Socorro Reyes, a congressional policy adviser, described the competition as a “proxy war” among 3 power brokers: President Rodrigo Duterte, his daughter Sara, and outgoing Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The President's Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban (PDP-Laban) party is the biggest bloc with 86 members followed by a coalition of 55 party-list lawmakers led by Rep. Romero, the wealthiest member of the lower house.

The Nacionalista Party (NP) has 42 congressmen while the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) has 37.

Twenty-five congressmen belong to the National Unity Party (NUP) while 18 are with the Liberal Party (LP). Lakas has 8 congressmen.

CARROT AND STICK

Speakers make sure of the rock-solid loyalty of the majority leader, and congressmen heading the committees on appropriations and accounts.

The 125-member appropriations committee examines the president’s annual national budget and can serve as a sitting speaker’s “lifeline,” an administration congressman said.

“Yun ang iyong carrot and stick sa mga member to toe the line,” he said, noting how the committee can allocate or withhold funding for certain projects.

(That is the carrot and stick for members to toe the line.)

The accounts committee has 55 members in control of the “purse” of the House.

Data from the Center for National Budget shows the allocations for the Senate, SET, Commission on Appointments, House of Representatives, and HRET under President Rodrigo Duterte over 4 years

Congressmen not favored by the incumbent speaker may be told to forego a committee meeting on the pretext that there is no allocation from the chamber’s internal budget, a legislator said.

“Pag medyo 'di ka good-looking sa House, saka na muna yung meeting mo,” he said.

(If you're not too good-looking in the House, your meeting can wait.)

PALACE COMMITTEES

Sitting presidents, he said, also put loyal congressmen as majority leader and chairman of the justice committee.

The majority leader, who also heads the rules committee, can derail Malacañang’s preferred bills since he, together with the speaker, decides which legislative measures will be taken up on the floor.

The justice committee is likewise crucial because it handles impeachment complaints that may be filed against the president, the congressman said.

Membership in the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA), the body scrutinizing key presidential appointees, is also a major focus of negotiations.

A contingent of 12 House representatives sits in the CA headed by the Senate President.

Beyond the horse-trading for committee leadership, the speakership is ultimately decided by Malacañang even if lawmakers and political blocs may have already committed to certain contenders, an outgoing congressman said.

“Kahit ano pa mangyari dyan, kahit na umoo na sayo yung congressman, sasabihin lang sayo, ‘Pasensya na,’” he told ABS-CBN News.

(It doesn't matter if a congressman said 'yes' to you, he can tell you later that he's sorry.)

“Kung sino sabihin ng presidente sa huli, yun na yun.”

(In the end, it's the president who decides.)

‘24 EGOS’

A president’s overwhelming influence over the House can be attributed to the lack of a strong political party system in the Philippines, said political science professor Antonio Contreras.

“Even if co-equal branches yan, laging presidente ang may say and we have allowed that to happen. We have allowed that kind of relationship to flourish unquestioned,” he said.

Contreras said senators tend to be more “independent” than House members, owing to their bigger constituencies.

Senators are elected nationwide unlike representatives, who are voted per congressional district. Party-list groups are selected from a nationwide vote, but get a much smaller vote than senators.

“The Senate is actually 24 egos,” Contreras said.

“May kanya-kanyang loyalty ang mga senador sa sarili nila pero they are still nevertheless aligning with a group that would declare that we are pro-administration even if we’re critical of it. Yun ang additional na flavor ng Senado.”

(Each senator is loyal to himself or herself but they are still nevertheless aligning with a group that would declare that we are pro-administration even if we’re critical of it. That's the flavor of the Senate.)

Senate President Vicente Sotto III has been consolidating his forces, hoping to keep his post in the 18th Congress despite a perceived challenge from Sen. Cynthia Villar, who topped the senatorial election in the midterm elections last month.