MANILA - The looming rematch for supremacy of the House of Representatives between incumbent Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco may prove to be the opening salvo of the bigger political contest that is the 2022 national elections, where the winner may just take it all.
Had Negros Oriental 3rd District Arnolfo Teves or any other House member complained about their districts' allocation in the national budget at any other time, it may have gone the way of previous grumblings about the annual appropriations which fizzled out and eventually dismissed as bargaining chips to shake down a better deal for their districts.
"Alam ko hong hindi maganda o pakinggan na nagkakaroon ng kaguluhan sa budget, pero dapat po rin natin kilalanin na bawat kinatawan, the representatives of our respective are here because they are supposed to fight for their respective districts," Anak Kalusugan Rep. Mike Defensor said during the plenary session Wednesday.
But what makes the ongoing intramurals over the 2021 budget in the House eye-catching is that it runs right smack into the time when a term sharing agreement between Cayetano and Velasco for the 4th highest position in the job is supposed to be enforced.
Both camps believe that the transition under the deal that gave Cayetano 15 months and Velasco 21 months should occur in the last quarter of 2020--during which the budget for 2021--the year before the next Presidential election---would be in various stages of approval and deliberation in the House, the Senate, the bicameral conference committee or even the President's final signature.
Between the complicated politics of passing the national budget and the beginnings of the 2022 election campaign, President Rodrigo Duterte's team of rivals faces the inconvenient truth about the unsettled rivalry for the House Speakership in 2019 -- that there can be only one winner who could end up not just with the country's 4th highest position, but also significant kingmaking influence in the 2022 elections.
Under the term-sharing agreement for the speakership last year, Cayetano leads the House for the first 15 months of the 18th Congress, while Velasco will assume leadership for the last 21 months.
That term sharing agreement was brokered by Duterte.
But with 2 speakers--one supposed to be leaving and another one assuming the post while the budget could be pending anywhere in the House, the Senate or the bicameral conference committee, the question arises as to who gets what say in the budget that will be implemented the year before a national election.
University of the Philippines Political Science Assistant Professor Jean Franco explained that "they can be kingmakers because the Speaker and Senate President can realign the budget of each House to provide additional budget for favored legislators."
The Speaker, as leader of the lower chamber which gets first crack at recasting the proposed budget of the administration, would have a significant say on how the budget will turn out.
"The House Speaker and his allies in the House have full control so to speak, of the budget. The heads of the House Committees dealing with the budget such as the Committees on Appropriations, Rules, and Accounts owe their position to the Speaker. It goes without saying that they will abide by what the Speaker tells them to do," Franco said.
Cayetano and Velasco share a name, except the latter spells with 2 L's. But that's the least of their differences.
Cayetano is a seasoned politician who rose from being a Taguig councilor to its vice mayor, congressman before being elected as senator and eventually placing 3rd in the 2016 vice-presidential race. He became Duterte's foreign secretary before making a mighty comeback in the House as House Speaker in 2019.
Politics is in Alan Peter's blood. He's the son of the late senator Rene Cayetano, and brother to Sen. Pia Cayetano and Taguig Mayor Lino Cayetano. His wife Lani Cayetano is serving as Taguig representative .
Meanwhile, the son of retired Supreme Court Associate Justice and now Marinduque Gov. Presbitero Velasco, Lord Allan served as provincial administrator before becoming a lawmaker. His mother and sister also were legislators in previous congresses. He has close ties to San Miguel Corporation CEO Ramon Ang who served as mentor to the baptism of his youngest daughter.
Being foreign secretary, Cayetano formed close ties with the Duterte Cabinet, including the President's former chief aide and now Senator Christopher "Bong" Go. Velasco and his wife meanwhile are friends of Duterte's oldest children--Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.
While the election is still 2022, spending bans minimize the use of state funds in election campaigns on election years. That's why the year before an election -- in this case 2021 -- is always crucial since it's when politicians who are running showcase their achievements in a bid to secure the hearts and minds that will translate into votes on election day.
In other words, being the House Speaker has a huge influence on the political fortunes of practically every elective official, including himself depending on his electoral plans.
Cayetano has said that he has no plans for 2022.
"Napaka-aga ng 2022, hindi naman ako tatakbo,” he told the media on the sidelines of an event in San Juan City in November 2019.
Though no one would be surprised if he changes his mind, many politicians before him have reversed previous announcements about their own political plans during their own time.
While Cayetano does not look like he is involved in any campaign for 2022 at this time, his allies in the House have been campaigning for a potential election this year -- for him to stay as Speaker -- despite the term sharing agreement with Velasco back in 2019.
On Wednesday, his allies from different members of the majority coalition spoke on behalf of their blocs in the plenary session of the House.
Cavite's congressmen, Abraham Tolentino, Jesus Crispin Remulla, Elpidio Barzaga, Strike Revilla, Alex Advincula, Luis Jonjon Ferrer and Francis Gerald Abaya issued a manifesto of support to keep Cayetano on top of the House.
"We, the undersigned Representatives from Cavite, belonging to different political parties and affiliations, are united in our trust, confidence and support in the leadership of Congressman Alan Peter C. Cayetano, as Speaker of the House of Representatives."
Like others before them, the Cavite lawmakers cited the House's achievements under Cayetano's watch as reasons to keep him as Speaker.
Tolentino chairs the Accounts Committee, which handles the institutional and internal finances of the House. Remulla is a Senior Deputy Majority Leader.
Barzaga, who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources and president of the National Unity Party, even took to the floor of the House on Wednesday afternoon.
"Kaya sa nalalabing 21 buwan katulad ng kami ay magsimula muli na naman, susuportahan ang liderato ni Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano."
The NUP was among the earliest to back Cayetano's speakership bid in 2019.
Defensor, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, spoke on behalf of the Anak Kalusugan Party-list and the party-list bloc, pointing out Cayetano has become a bridge from the lawmakers to the Cabinet.
"Ako po ay naninindigan at naniniwala kasama po ang aking mga kasapi sa party-list at mga kaibigan sa iba't-ibang distrito na dapat ipagpatuloy ang liderato ng ating kasalakuyang Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano. Sa gitna ng ating mga problema, sa gitna ng ating mga kinakaharap, sa gitna ng ating dapat gawin, kailangan po natin ng isang liderato na may direksyon at meron pong pagsasaayos, hindi lang sa Kongreso, kung 'di sa buong bansa," he said.
Deputy Speaker Henry Oaminal also vouched for Cayetano on behalf of Mindanao lawmakers.
"The members of the House of Representatives representing the legislative districts of northern and southern Mindanao, where this representation is one of the deputy speakers, strongly and unequivocally manifest our full support to the sustained leadership of the lower house by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano."
Even Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice, an ally of Vice President Leni Robredo who beat Cayetano in the 2016 vice-presidential race, gave him glowing reviews.
"I am with the Liberal Party and I am very thankful to Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano for providing us a chance, whether we are in the majority or minority, to take part in the crafting of laws that will benefit our people. "
"We fear that any squabble amongst us will lead to the decrease of our efficiency and will lead to the constriction of the democratic space that we enjoy now under the leadership of Speaker Cayetano," he added.
On Tuesday, Capiz Rep. Fred Castro who chairs the Committee on Strategic Intelligence, even cited the pandemic as a ground to keep Cayetano.
"Ang pagpalit ng liderato ng mababang kapulungan ng Kongreso ay hindi napapanahon, 'di lamang dahil ang buong mundo kasama ang bansang Pilipinasay lagok sa pandemiyang COVID-19. Sa aking paniniwala ay maliban sa COVID-19, hindi handa na tumanggap ng mandato ang kausap ni Speaker Cayetano na susunod sa kaniya bilang Speaker ng mababang kapulungan."
More vocal allies of Cayetano have also insisted that any leadership change be done through an election.
Bulacan Rep. Jose Antonio Sy Alvarado, chair of the powerful House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, latched onto Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque's pronouncement for the President, which also upheld the need for the Speaker to have the numbers.
"Binibigyan ng independensiya ang ating legislative branch ng government, sa pamamagitan po ng pagsasabi na kailangan bago po mabigyan ng pagkakataon ang turnover sa House of the people, ay magkaroon ng karampatang boto ang sinumang kandidato bilang Speaker."
Roque earlier told reporters that the President "is hoping" Cayetano and Velasco will honor their agreement.
"But the decision will be the decision of individual congressmen, ang sinabi niya talaga to quote is ‘kung walang numero si Lord Alan, walang siyang magagawa," he said.
It's a point that was already raised by Castro and another Cayetano stalwart, Deputy Speaker Dan Fernandez.
"Parang mahihirapan po tayo na biglang i-transfer. Even a lot of congressman right now believes this is not the right time because the Congress right now, in addressing the problem of COVID-19, is doing good," Fernandez had said after Castro delivered a privileged speech blasting Velasco.
"It is incumbent upon the different congressmen to vote on what they feel and I agree with you Cong. Fred Castro and I support your intention...na tayo ang magdesisyon for our own leader."
Many of those who have come out for Cayetano belong to the current batch of House leaders he picked, who occupy positions of trust, and maybe the subjects of a revamp if there is a new Speaker. Here, they invoke the term sharing agreement should only cover the Speakership and another position in the House.
Under House rules, they have basis for this claim though.
Section 13, Rule 3 of the House Rules for the 18th Congress states, that, "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. "
Section 11 of the same Rule says, "Likewise, whenever there is a vacancy, the Speaker shall be elected by a majority vote of all the Members and the Secretary General shall record the vote of each Member which shall be cast without explanation. The Deputy Speakers, the Secretary General and the Sergeant-at-Arms shall be elected by a majority vote of the Members present, there being a quorum. "
Cayetano's camp has openly accused the Velasco sideof offering leadership positions even if the term sharing agreement only covered the Speakership and the chairmanship of the Accounts Committee, which manages the internal finances of the House.
Castro said they want to minimize disruptions to the work of the House.
"Tinatawag ko ang pansin ni Cong. Alan Velasco sa kaniyang kasunduan kay Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano na silang 2 lang ng chairman ng Committee on Accounts ang mapapalitan kung matutuloy ang pagsalin ng liderato. This is precisely how it was worked out because we want a smooth transition. To me, this will never happen if they attempt to remove all the chairmen and deputy speakers in order to replace them with their own people."
"Let us be clear the agreement between Speaker Cayetano and Cong. Velasco is between them. And while I expect the good Speaker to abide by it, how can we trust Cong. Velasco to hold up his end of the deal," he added.
Reorganizing the House from scratch tends to be divisive and time-consuming as committee leaderships have to be divided proportionally among the coalition parties, who then pick specific congressmen from among party members.
But Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza pointed out to the Cayetano camp that Velasco did not require the former to have the numbers when he agreed to the term sharing agreement.
“Speaker Cayetano assumed the Speakership on the basis of the term-sharing agreement between him and Cong. Velasco. They agreed upon that arrangement as suggested by Cayetano himself. They agreed to this in front of no less than President Duterte himself. Cayetano did not carry the majority numbers at that time, and Cong. Velasco did not ask for that to be a condition before he agreed to the agreement," Atienza said.
"Now that his term is about to end and Cong. Velasco is about to begin his, why is the Speaker’s supporters questioning if Cong. Velasco has the numbers. It is totally unfair to make it a condition now."
Velasco has remained silent amid everything.
"I have been silent during the duration of the gentleman’s agreement in deference and respect to the sitting Speaker. My silence does not mean I am disinterested nor I have turned my back on the covenant," Velasco said in a Facebook post.
“Being party to the term-sharing agreement, one does not and should not seek to compete with the current Speaker as a gentleman’s agreement is in force. We will have our turn at the right time," he stressed,
Atienza pointed out that the President’s intervention is needed now.
“Mr. President, please do not allow the breaking of this gentleman’s agreement to share terms. Otherwise, Congress is doomed to fail if palabra de honor and delicadeza are not followed,” he said.