The biggest employer
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 22, 2019 - 12:00am

When reports came out that President Duterte’s son Paolo was open to seeking the speaker’s post, congressmen were seen rushing to his office at the House of Representatives.

Paolo, however, later said he would instead support Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab of Hugpong ng Pagbabago, the party formed by Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, as speaker. The same bunch that crowded Paolo Duterte’s office were then seen at the office of Ungab.

This story was narrated, heads shaking and with a wry grin, by some members themselves of the PDP-Laban and the party-list coalition – the two biggest blocs in the House. I don’t think they were lying or exaggerating.

In recent weeks, contenders for the speaker’s post have been brandishing the signatures of colleagues supposedly backing their bids for the top House post. If you add up all the signatures, you’d get three times more than the number of congressmen.

That’s how fickle loyalties can be in what critics like to describe as either the HOR or the House of Representathieves – take your pick.

Those butterflies flitting around the offices of Paolo Duterte and then Ungab probably just wanted to congratulate them in advance. But a more important goal is to ensure membership in a committee of the congressman’s choice.

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Committee membership is also the reason why the opposition ranks in the chamber are usually decimated at the start of a new Congress. The opposition – those who call themselves the “real” opposition who are considered independent – do not get committee memberships.

This is why the House minority is not the political opposition, but consists mainly of those who did not vote for the incumbent speaker. As we saw in the 17th Congress, those who voted for the speaker could change their mind and decide to be part of the minority, and even become the minority leader. When the Supreme Court was asked to step in, the justices effectively said it was none of their business and it was up to the congressmen themselves to set their own rules.

Why would members of the super majority coalition want to belong to the minority? Because they would then get more committee memberships, as every committee must have a representative from the minority.

Why is committee membership so important? It is in the committees where the main work of legislation is carried out, allowing a congressman to promote the interests of his or her constituency through the crafting of bills. The committees also conduct the inquiries in aid of legislation and, depending on the nature of the subject, in aid of reelection.

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It is also in the committees where spirited lobbying is done by special interest groups – with all the perks that lawmakers get out of an activity that should have been legalized and regulated a long time ago. But personal fortunes can be built on lobby money, so regulating lobbying has as much chance of congressional approval as proposals on regulating campaign finance and political dynasties, or lifting bank secrecy laws for tax evasion and money laundering.

Those are among the laws that we’d like to see passed by the 18th Congress… we can always dream on.

What we don’t want to see are more gerrymandering laws, to further bloat the number of “pork”-hungry congressmen as well as local government officials and employees on the payroll of taxpayers.

Those of you who didn’t bother to read the report card of the 17th Congress would be interested to know that among the House bills that became law, all seven under the “local government” category involved the creation of new legislative districts: in the provinces of Cavite, Aklan, Isabela and Southern Leyte as well as the cities of Calamba, General Santos and Mandaue. 

We really should stop making the government the biggest employer in this country. Sen. Vicente Sotto III, who is pushing for “right-sizing” in the bureaucracy, says the government can save up to P1 trillion through an early or voluntary retirement program. He noted that 65 percent of the annual national budget goes to maintenance and other operating expenses including salaries.

Right-sizing, obviously, is not about to be applied in the House of Representatives. Instead, the opposite is happening.

Instead of aiming for efficiency and cost reduction by eliminating redundancies and mediocre performers, we keep creating new departments and agencies. We keep gerrymandering upon the initiative of entrenched dynasties so all members of the family would have a seat in government.

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President Duterte should listen to his finance chief Carlos Dominguez, put his foot down and veto any bill in the next three years that smacks of gerrymandering.

Dominguez, who faced us on Cignal TV / One News’ “The Chiefs” recently, cited one recent example: the division of Palawan into three provinces. “All of a sudden your overhead is times three but your productive capacity is the same,” Dominguez told us.

Look at the expensive, disastrous experiment that is the party-list system. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the party list gets more bloated in every election, competing with urgent projects and programs for limited public funds. Several of the representatives of the winning party-list groups this year are clearly clueless not only about legislative work but even about what sector they are supposed to represent. You talk to them and weep over our profligacy in the utilization of people’s money.

As of yesterday, the hiss from the HOR snake pit was that in the speakership contest, it ain’t over till its over. Even the aspirants probably can’t be sure if that’s mostly wishful thinking.

Those of us in the peanut gallery watch the power play in the chamber where there are no real political parties, only personal interests, and wonder when they will go after each other’s throats, literally.

Maybe some will fall by the wayside and save the country a significant amount of precious public funds. But you and I know that this is wishful thinking. If anyone does fall by the wayside, there’s a long line of relatives waiting to replace the lawmaker – and with a bill to gerrymander the family bailiwick.

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