Coup
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2020 - 12:00am

Now it can be told.

While the nation was anxiously distracted through January by the eruption of Taal Volcano and the alarming spread of Covid-19, those playing politics as usual were conspiring to mount a coup at the House of Representatives. The coup was directed at ousting Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano with Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco replacing him at the helm.

We will recall that Cayetano and Velasco were locked in a bitter fight for the speakership in the period after the midterm elections. A division of the pro-administration supermajority was averted when the two contestants agreed to the 15-21 time sharing formula proposed by President Duterte.

Under this formula, Cayetano would serve as Speaker during the first 15 months while Velasco will serve out the remaining 21 months of the current Congress. Based on the agreement, Cayetano has until October this year to serve as Speaker.

During the past months under Cayetano’s leadership, the House performed quite well. The economic reform policies pushed by the administration passed the legislative mill efficiently. The House’s performance reflects in the unprecedented public approval ratings Cayetano gained in the most recent polls.

But that performance was not impressive enough for those impatiently yearning for the top post.

According to close allies of Speaker Cayetano, they began monitoring the ouster move late last year. Velasco’s trusted lieutenants began approaching legislators promising chairmanships and additional project allocations.

In pursuit of the effort, Velasco’s group – principally Aurelio Gonzales, Mikee Romero and Eric Pineda – tried to realign items in the General Appropriations Act. Those realignments did not conform with President Duterte’s budget message and could have caused a delay in the enactment of this year’s budget.

At any rate, the move to realign budget items did not succeed.

Then the Velasco group seized the controversy over the ABS-CBN franchise to collect signatures from congressmen to create pressure to renew the broadcast giant’s franchise. Even as Duterte has articulated many times his opposition to the renewal of the franchise, the Velasco group collected signatures to advance the ouster plot.

The actual list of signatories to this document was never released. Over the last few days, rumors circulated that many congressmen who originally signed on to the petition have asked to withdraw their signatures. This could signal the recession of the Oust Cayetano effort.

According to the Cayetano camp, Velasco even dared to approach Rep. Paolo Duterte, offering him the post of majority floor leader in the hope of winning over the Mindanao bloc to the power grab. Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab was likewise approached in the effort to get the younger Duterte to accept the offer.

Many of the current committee chairmen were assured continuance in their posts if they supported the coup plot. The plotter sought to isolate those perceived to be staunchly pro-Cayetano: LRay Villafuerte, Roberto Puno, Raneo Abu, Neptali Gozales II and Dan Fernandez.

Even as the plot appears to have failed, the fact that it was even attempted dishonors the term-sharing plan initiated by President Duterte. It could have killed that arrangement considering that the President would want his legislative agenda done before election fever sets in.

Estopped

The franchise renewal of ABS-CBN might have become an inadvertent casualty of the factional maneuvering that went on at the House of Representatives through January. Over the past few days, as congressmen withdrew their signatures from the petition asking for early deliberations, Cayetano hardened his position to move back debate on the matter.

Rep. Lito Atienza, perhaps unaware of the factional undercurrents at work, was impassioned in his privilege speech asking the House not to renege on its duty to consider the issue of the franchise. The first consideration of the franchise happened way back in 2014 when the committee heard the opposition to renewal posed by the cable operators association. Since then, no hearing has been conducted on the matter.

At any rate, the inaction of the House over the past few years on the matter of renewing the franchise is now water under the bridge. What has happened has happened.

Any movement on a matter involving a franchise originates from the House. Earlier this week, Sen. Franklin Drilon initiated a joint resolution to extend the franchise of the network. That move is likely out of order. The Senate can act on the franchise application only after it passes the House.

The proposed Senate hearing on the controversial franchise issue is also likely out of order. The House has the privilege to consider the matter first.

Last Tuesday, the Solicitor General submitted a very urgent motion to the Supreme Court asking that the franchise issue be declared sub judice. That will effectively curtail the effort of the broadcast giant to court public sympathy for the renewal of its franchise.

As we expect Cayetano to freeze any action on the franchise in the lower chamber, the process relating to the quo warranto petition at the High Court will take many more days before a determination is made on whether or not there is a justiciable issue.

Should the Supreme Court decide that the quo warranto petition merits its attention, especially the matter concerning indirect foreign ownership of the broadcast company through the use of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs), this will change the dynamic of this controversy dramatically.

If the Court decides there is indeed a constitutional issue at stake here, the Congress is effectively estopped. While the Congress can make laws, settling a dispute over constitutionality is entirely within the Supreme Court’s domain.

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