Amid rumors of change in leadership, Cayetano is still House Speaker

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 21 2020 07:37 PM | Updated as of Sep 22 2020 05:45 AM

MANILA - Taguig Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano remained Monday as the Speaker of the House of Representatives amid a text message that circulated among his colleagues last week indicating a change in leadership in the chamber.

Under the House Rules, any change in the chamber's leadership can only be done in a plenary session, with all members of the House voting. It will be triggered by a motion to declare the speakership or all positions vacant.

Section 13, Rule 3 of the House Rules states, "The position of Speaker may only be declared vacant through nominal voting by a majority vote of all the Members. In cases when all offices are declared vacant, the incumbent Secretary General shall preside over the proceedings of the House only for the purpose and until the election of a new Speaker."

If that gets a majority vote from all members, the positions concerned are declared vacant, and the plenary proceeds to elect a new Speaker by a majority of all members as well.

Nothing of that sort happened during the plenary session in the House on Monday.

Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu, an ally of Cayetano, presided over the session which lasted no more than 20 minutes. After the National Anthem and opening prayer, the lawmakers went through the business for the day - mainly referrals of bills - before Abu suspended the session until Tuesday.

There was no privilege hour, which is when lawmakers can rise on a matter of personal privilege on any topic, and is customary on Mondays.

The text message that suggested a change in House leadership was attributed to Deputy Speaker for Political Affairs Paolo Duterte, the son of President Rodrigo Duterte who represents Davao City's 1st District.

In the history of the post-EDSA Congress, there have only been 2 successful abrupt leadership changes at the Lower House.

The first was in 2008 which saw then House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles take over the Speakership from Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia at the height of the ZTE NBN Scandal where de Venecia's son, Joey, testified against then First Gentleman Mike Arroyo.

The second wouldn't occur until 10 years later. In 2018, then Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took the helm of the chamber after lawmakers rebelled against then Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez over issues on the budget and his management of the House. He also had a public spat with Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the President's daughter.

In both cases, the days before the actual coup were filled with phone calls, meetings, head counts, and mobilizations of votes and supporters among congressmen. None of these happened from last week until Monday, based on ABS-CBN's off-the-record conversations with multiple congressional sources.

While there have been red flags and eyebrows raised by congressmen due to misgivings over the allocation of Department of Public Works and Highways funds in the 2021 budget, after Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo questioned the allotment for Taguig and Camarines Sur, no one apparently took advantage of the issue to challenge Cayetano's grip on the Speakership.

Monday's plenary session was hybrid, with most congressmen joining via video conferencing because of the pandemic. Another source explained to ABS-CBN it will be difficult to mount a coup in the House via video conferencing.

Previous committee hearings and sessions done via video conferencing have been hounded by audio and connection problems. During the 2018 change in leadership, the sound system was disabled as supporters of Arroyo worked for her installation as House Speaker..

Congressional sources explained that talks of House coups tend to be common during the annual budget season when lawmakers lobby for funds for their constituents. But they fizzle out once the budget is settled.

Persons linked to the sitting President were notably involved in the previous changes in the House leadership. Members of then President Arroyo's family who were members of the House, were among those who supported to replace de Venecia with Nograles in 2008. In 2018, Mayor Sara Duterte was widely credited for Arroyo's Speakership.

On Sunday, Cong. Duterte issued a statement clarifying the text message that circulated among lawmakers last week, which supposedly suggested he was going to ask the Mindanao bloc of lawmakers to declare the Speakership and Deputy Speakerships vacant on Monday, and that he had expressed misgivings for being dragged into the wrangling over the budget issue.

Cong. Duterte said in his statement that the text message was merely an expression of dismay that he has been dragged into the fray.

"The text message that I sent to another lawmaker — and is now making the rounds — was an expression of my personal dismay upon hearing the concerns of my fellow lawmakers. It was the same message that I sent after one Congressman from the Visayas bloc dragged my name into the issue even after I have already strongly made myself clear over this issue," he said.

While he confirmed there are lawmakers who are unhappy over the budget issue, he said he is distancing himself out of delicadeza, because he is a son of the President.

"Over the past days, quite a number of lawmakers have called me as they expressed their disappointment and consternation over the fate of their respective allocations and budgets from the hands of the current House leadership. Although I am an ex officio member being a Deputy Speaker, I have respectfully and clearly told them that their concern is something that I would rather stay away from — out of delicadeza because my father is the President," he said.

"Most of these concerns shrouded doubts over the process and mistrust of the lawmakers ruling the House, those who are acting as if they are bigger than their colleagues. Respectfully, I told them that I did not want to get involved."

"As much as I am part of Congress with a duty to be involved in the goings on inside, I cannot discount the fact that I am a Duterte.
Anything that comes out of my actions or mouth could be construed or manipulated as having the blessing of my father. And so I would rather suffer or work in silence rather than sacrifice the supposed independence of the House from the Palace," he added.

"Now as Congress continues to be hounded by the issue of budget — something that finds its way up to the current House leadership, how it treats its members, how it approves allocations and budgets with fairness or lack of it — let me reiterate my position. I do not want to get involved, however, I wish to help my fellow lawmakers find answers to their questions or remedies to the budget that they proposed for their people."

But he said "members of Congress have the power to change the course of which the leadership is leading them to and address a problem to ensure that the programs and projects for their people are delivered and delivered expeditiously."

"The members of Congress have the power to correct everything that they perceive as wrong happening within the Lower House or change leadership as they demand fair treatment and reforms," he said."

"If the members of Congress will push for a change in House leadership, as a reaction to their sentiments, obviously I would be among the casualties because I am a deputy speaker. I am ready to accept the consequences."

Cayetano has yet to personally address the issues.

But his ally, Deputy Speaker Lray Villafuerte of Camarines Sur hit Teves, linking the latter's complaints to a supposed attempt by the camp of Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco to delay the budget deliberations.

Velasco is set to take over the Speakership before the year ends under a term sharing agreement announced by President Duterte in 2019.

Velasco has remained mum on the issues as well.

The Makabayan bloc, for its part, maintains that the wrangling over the budget is proof there is pork barrel in the budget.

In a statement, Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas said: "The ongoing squabble among some House members over their respective allocations in the proposed 2021 budget is clear proof of the persistence of pork in the national budget despite the lingering COVID-19 pandemic."

This, according to Brosas, "apparently stems from the P397 billion initial lump sum 'parked' at the DPWH Central Office which we exposed during the start of the budget deliberations, which is now sliced unevenly among districts and regions."

"These are projects which are not originally included in the DPWH’s budget in the 2021 National Expenditure Program (NEP) and that will be inserted in the still unprinted General Appropriations Bill (GAB)," she said.

"This annual wrangling over pork-loaded infrastructure projects apparently cannot be tamed even in the light of gaping spending needs for COVID-19 response, presumably because the 2022 elections are approaching. The delay of the 2021 budget approval is very likely, especially if this squabble translates into a major shakeup in the House leadership," Brosas said.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate also lamented the "unprecedented P4.5 billion confidential and intelligence funds of the Office of the President", which he calls a "presidential pork."

"The P19.1 billion budget of the (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) parked in different departments are generals' pork. Even the apparent disparity in the allocations of funds to by the different departments, mainly the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), are of course a matter of pork," Zarate said.

"This is also the reason why many lawmakers are questioning the supposed huge allocations of projects to some areas while others did not get as much."

The "pork-like allocations", he said, are eating up funds for social services, like those for hospitals, schools, and social pension, said Zarate.

"As it is, it would indeed be better to realign all these pork-like allocations in, among others, the fight against COVID-19, in aid to those displaced and now jobless workers and help our children still study well under these current conditions," he said.