Lawmakers play musical chairs amid lower House revamp

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 09 2019 03:13 AM

The scramble for leadership and committee positions in the House of Representatives has lawmakers playing musical chairs among political parties allied with President Rodrigo Duterte.

On August 6, the National Unity Party (NUP) welcomed new congressmen into its fold and brought its congressional membership to 45 district congressmen and 12 party-list allies, up from 25 district congressmen who won under the party’s banner in the May 2019 elections.

This count also includes an adopted party member, presidential son and House Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte, who has since then announced he is also open for adoption by other parties in the House.

Duterte won under the local Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod in Davao City. “If being adopted by most, if not all, political parties is to be of service to the people, then I am more than willing to join all of you, “ said Duterte in a statement to media on August 7.

The same day, former NUP member Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro and Rizal Rep. Fidel Nograles joined Lakas CMD.

“It feels good to be back home. I used to be the Lakas-CMD party chair in the whole province of Capiz and I was also appointed as district chairman concurrently. It is a homecoming because I have returned to Lakas, my original party,” Castro said. Nograles is a nephew of the late Speaker Prospero Nograles who was also with Lakas.

As that happened, the PDP held a party for Senator Manny Pacquiao in Makati. Around 36 PDP congressmen showed up at the party, about half of the 73 congressmen of the PDP.

House Deputy Speaker Johnny Pimentel says they lost 12 to NUP and 1 to Lakas. PDP finished the May 2019 elections with 82 out of the 241 district congressmen, according to data analyzed by the ABS-CBN News Investigative and Research Group.

Pimentel said they have yet to discuss the matter of adopting or allying with party-list congressmen.

ABS-CBN News Investigative and Research Group data also showed that 42 congressmen won under the Nacionalista Party, 36 under the Nationalist People’s Coalition, 18 under the Liberal Party, 11 under Lakas, while 27 won under smaller parties. A total of 61 congressmen are from the party list system.

San Jose del Monte, Bulacan Rep. Florida Robes justified her decision to bolt PDP for the NUP by citing the need to consolidate with the ruling political forces in her province, but she also admitted that there is some impatience in the PDP for positions in the chamber.

Another PDP lawmaker, Isabela Rep. Tonypet Albano, explained he left the party for the NUP because of the latter’s offer to be the vice-president of the party. “Being a neophyte congressman like myself, it's my first time to be in Congress. I think I feel that I would better serve the country being an executive officer of the NUP and this is very important for us neophyte congressmen to have a bigger voice in crafting legislation."

“Dito po sa NUP dahil napakaliit na party, I know I will grow here than the PDP party. Personal agenda ko po 'yun. I was offered as the VP of the NUP. Member lang ako sa PDP,” he said.

PDP congressmen have to pay a P100,000 membership fee and P50,000 in annual dues to the party for mere membership, according to a copy of PDP resolution No. 3 Series of 2017 signed by the party’s leaders.

On the other hand, 2 congressmen who declined to be named said congressmen got no financial support from the party during the election campaign.

PDP Public Information Committee chair Ron Munsayac explained, “Unlike previous ruling parties and other parties owned and backed up by big businesses, we are not awash with cash. We get our funds from contributions and humble donations from our members, hence we cannot extend the logistical assistance that some politicians got used to in the previous administration parties and other political parties with bigger budgets.”

Pimentel, however denied that PDP members have been left out in the cold in the selection of House positions.

"We have majority of the leadership positions. We have 6 deputy speakers, 5 deputy majority leaders, 4 assistant majority leaders. We have 3 PDP-Laban members in the Commission on Appointments," he said. "We have the head contingent of House Electoral Tribunal Cong Doy Leachon. We have 11 committee chairmen and we are still working on more appointments. It is unfortunate that one political party is trying to incresae their members and in the process is sowing intrigues in PDP-Laban.”

Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano’s speakership is the first time in post-EDSA Revolution history that the House speaker and the majority leader did not come from the President’s party.

Duterte chairs the PDP but Cayetano is from the Nacionalista Party led by Senator Cynthia Villar.

House Majority Leader Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez is from the Lakas but he got the position after he garnered the support of close to 200 congressmen in the early stage of the speakership race.

PDP’s speakership candidate, Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, will have to wait for his turn to be House speaker after 15 months under a term-sharing agreement Duterte endorsed.

On the other hand, the NUP led by business magnate Enrique Razon and veteran political strategist Ronaldo Puno was among the earliest to support the speakership bid of Cayetano, who ended up in the Speaker’s office.

Puno said Cayetano’s rise may have contibuted to their own rise. “Actually our membership doubled because I think mainly of the support for Speaker Cayetano. Many of us have worked together during the early days of the Congress to help elect the new speaker so I think this camaraderie led to an increase “

Puno said they have no plans of challenging the PDP’s numerical supremacy, as the party has already capped its membership for congressmen.

House Senior Deputy Majority Leader Jesus Crispin Remulla said this seeming race for numerical superiority among members of the majority coalition in the lower House matters much in the distribution of the over 100 leadership positions and reorganization of the 60 standing and 15 special committees that are the workhorses of the legislative mill.

These positions and committees have significant influence and say in the fate of the chamber’s chief output—the laws of the land.

Remulla said the bigger the party is in terms of numbers in the House, the more positions they will get for their members. “Basically it’s more on the mathematics of the party. If they occupy 30.3% then 30.3% is possible, is given to that party in terms of memberships and leadership positions.”

While the positions and memberships are formally elected in plenary by the full House, the actual selection is done by the House leadership—the speaker, the majority leader and the party leaders and representatives.

But while numerical superiority is key to landing positions in the chamber’s hierarchy, a congressman can also rely on having friends in high places.

Remulla said some leadership positions are the personal choices of either the speaker or the President of the Philippines, while some committees are traditionally reserved to certain political parties.

“Some parties always hold several committees, for example the Nacionalista Party traditionally holds the Committee on Higher Education. It’s as the same for different committees,” Remulla said. “Other considerations would be… well, for appropriations, somebody that Malacañang is very comfortable with. So we have Sid Ungab take over the Appropriations chairmanship and that’s of course the Speaker’s choice.”

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano admits to this instance of exercising that prerogative in his speech to the NUP when he joined them for their August 6 meeting. “So may ibang committees, I'll be very frank, pinapakialaman ko, because priority ito. We have been libeled, we have been slandered, we have been faked news in Europe, in US, about the real human rights situation in the Philippines, that's why I took a personal interest in taking the deputy speaker for interparliamentary relations, the chairperson of the committee of foreign affairs, and the chairperson ng IPRD (Interparliamentary Relations and Diplomacy). “

While there’s also the tradition of seniority, which gives those on their 3rd terms, as graduating congressmen, get first crack at leadership posts, Cayetano told congressmen and the public he will make sure that those who get positions in the leadership will be an asset to the agenda of the chamber.

“Until now, may mga reklamo ng konti sa committees, and as much as possible, I allow the parties to choose, but sometimes I stepped in. Because having the right woman or the right man for the job, can spell the difference between success and failure. You put the right person na very passionate about that committee, about that advocacy,“ he said.

But UP Political Science Assistant Professor Jean Franco said these decisions on who sits in the key posts in the House also involved personal politics. “The parameters of the negotiations would be to have members of Congress supportive of those who ran for speaker have other positions in the House or committee chairpersonship.”

However, House Deputy Speaker Roberto Puno told ANC Headstart, “I've been under four speakers. Alan Peter Cayetano is different in that when it comes to committee assignments, he recruits--he finds the right person to head the right committee based on their qualifications.”

With just 15 months as speaker, Cayetano is racing against time to get his chamber up and running to sift through some 3,000 bills pending in the chamber and deliver the President’s legislative agenda for the remaining years of the Duterte administration.

The committees that have the primary task of writing the proposed laws have to be in place so the leadership can invoke House Rule 48 which would allow bills already approved on 3rd reading in the preceding Congress to breeze through committee deliberations so the plenary can approve it again, expeditiously.