A done deal?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Is the fight truly over? Tapos na ba ang boksing?

In deference to President Duterte, whom all the squabbling blocs had begged to make his choice known, perhaps his allies in the House of Representatives will behave as expected of a super majority and give their support, grudging as it might be, to incoming HOR speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

There has been such a spirited resistance to Cayetano as speaker – coming from certain powerful quarters – that even when he himself told me on July 3 that the post was his, under his “15-21” or “Magellan formula” of term sharing, I hesitated to buy it completely.

Even with Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez declaring that he was bowing to Duterte’s wish for him to drop his bid for speaker and instead serve as House majority leader, speculation persists that anything can still happen before the 18th Congress buckles down to legislative work.

The speculation is fueled by what transpired at the joint opening session of Congress last year, when the nation – and much of the international diplomatic corps in the Philippines – were treated to the spectacle of a coup d’etat at the HOR, complete with speaker’s mace-snatching and unplugging of the speaker’s microphone.

The coup, which replaced Davao’s Pantaleon Alvarez with Pampanga’s Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was widely seen as the handiwork of Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio. This time, the Davao City mayor is said to favor Marinduque’s Lord Allan Velasco for speaker, and openly frowns on the term-sharing arrangement.

President Duterte has often said that his daughter is so strong-willed he’s scared of her, that she has her own mind and he cannot control her.

Which is why speculation persists that come July 22, the speaker who will bang the gavel for the House at the joint opening session will be someone other than Cayetano.

*      *      *

Yesterday, Duterte’s eldest son Paolo, now a representative of Davao City, stoked the fire by saying the contest for speaker was not yet a done deal and that one of the aspirants may be plotting a coup on July 22. The President’s comment: “Have you heard of wishful thinking?”

Speculation focused on Velasco as PDP-Laban members stressed that Cayetano would have to woo the support of the party’s 85 members. The renewed unrest apparently arose from committee memberships and Cayetano’s refusal to also allow term sharing in this area.

With the displeasure shown by Duterte during last year’s tumultuous joint session, however, my guess is he will not be openly defied, whether by his daughter or his congressional allies, and Cayetano will get what he wants – at least on the day of the fourth State of the Nation Address. Whether he will keep his post for the full 15 months is another story.

No matter how briefly he keeps the post, however, once Cayetano assumes his seat as speaker, this can no longer be taken away from his résumé.

*      *      *

For as long as I can remember, the president has always “anointed” the speaker of the House. And what the president gives, the president can take away. The only novel thing here is the term sharing in a chamber whose members have a term of only three years.

If the president is the kingmaker in Congress, what does that say about the independence of a supposedly co-equal branch of government, and the system of checks and balances?

Two members of the 18th Congress, Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel of PDP-Laban and Alfredo Garbin Jr. of Ako-Bicol party-list, enlightened us on Cignal TV - One News’ “The Chiefs” about congressional independence and being a Malacañang rubber stamp.

Every president, they pointed out, wants a Congress supportive of his or her legislative agenda. This is easier when allies of the president lead the two chambers.

There’s also the reality that because of the budgeting process, it’s the executive rather than Congress that holds the purse strings in government. The pork barrel system enhanced this executive power to influence the legislative agenda.

The president continues to enjoy this power, even with the Supreme Court’s abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund and other forms of pork barrel including the Disbursement Acceleration Program.

But there’s a difference, Pimentel and Garbin stressed, between endorsing someone for speaker and interfering in the actual work of crafting laws.

Also, even if both Malacañang and Congress keep finding clever ways of inserting “pork”-type appropriations in the national budget after the SC ruling, Pimentel and Garbin are telling the truth when they say there is no guarantee that a speaker or Senate president endorsed by the chief executive will always toe the Palace line.

Duterte failed to get several items on his legislative wish list from the previous Congress. Notable among these were the emergency powers to untangle Metro Manila traffic, and the restoration of capital punishment. His push for a shift to federalism is back to square one. And for all his fulsome public praise for Arroyo as a “political icon,” he was reportedly furious over the ugly brawl in the House under her watch as speaker, which caused a four-month delay in the approval of this year’s national appropriation and retarded economic growth.

Can Cayetano deliver the 2020 General Appropriations Act on time – meaning before yearend?

*      *      *

Even in matters of impeachment, there is no guarantee that a speaker belonging to the administration coalition will not turn against the chief executive.

As speaker, Manny Villar bolted the administration coalition and declared Joseph Estrada impeached during a tumultuous House session on Nov. 14, 2000. Villar immediately transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate for Erap’s trial. Once received by the Senate, it could no longer be recalled by the House, which was also dominated by Erap’s allies. No return, no exchange.

True, impeachment is a numbers game. But those numbers can shift like desert sand when discontent simmers and a president is approaching the end of his term.

Incidentally, Villar heads the Nacionalista Party, which supported presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte and is the party of Alan Peter Cayetano.

Just ask Jose de Venecia Jr. Or Pantaleon Alvarez. At the House of Representatives, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

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