‘Virtual’ sessions
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - July 31, 2020 - 12:00am

By tradition, the opposition leaders of Congress render their own turno en contra every after the state of the nation address (SONA). The literal meaning of turno en contra is the turn to speak against. This is a parliamentary term used to refer to the counter-SONA that is traditionally delivered by the Senate minority leader and by the House minority leader at their respective chambers. This usually takes place a day after the SONA on joint opening sessions of Congress.

In his penultimate SONA at the 18th Congress last Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte lambasted Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon for being a “hypocrite” and among the “opportunists” taking advantage of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic while the government is busy trying to stop the spread of this deadly flu-like contagion all over the Philippines.

Despite being directly attacked by the President, Drilon told me he has “no plan at this point” to render his contra-SONA. For now, it seems the head of the opposition ranks at the Senate won’t be drawn yet into locking horns with President Duterte except to deny before media the charges leveled against him.

At the House of Representatives, however, it is a different story.

A day after the SONA, the fractious House opposition stalwarts each rendered his own contra-SONA one after the other. This, despite Manila Congressman Benny Abante is the recognized House minority leader for the 25 or so members of the House opposition bloc. A fellow veteran lawmaker, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman who is still contesting the House minority leadership also delivered his own version of contra-SONA. Abante comes from the National Unity Party (NUP) while Lagman belongs to the Liberal Party (LP).

This is not to mention independent opposition leaders at the House of Representatives like Buhay party list Lito Atienza and the seven party list representatives from the left-leaning groups calling themselves as the “Makabayan” bloc.

Given the heads up about the House intramurals among the opposition ranks, I have to talk separately with Abante and Atienza one after the other about their respective take on the President’s SONA in this week’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum via Zoom Webinar. The two feuding House opposition leaders ignored seeing each other’s presence together in the Zoom meeting window.

Abante’s fellow House colleagues preferably calls him – a born-again Christian preacher – as “Pastor-Bishop.” Abante quoted bible passages in the opening and closing spiels of his contra-SONA, excerpts of which he read to us in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday.

In his contra-SONA, Abante vowed to continue his leadership of the House opposition ranks as “constructive” critics of the Duterte administration. He asserted, however, he is not the typical opposition leader who opposes the administration in power just for the sake of opposing. He cited his track record of independent lawmaker through the votes he cast on controversial administration-endorsed bills as well as his stand on important national issues.

In fact, he pointed out, he was among the only 11 Congressmen who voted in favor of extending the 25-year franchise of the ABS-CBN despite President Duterte’s stand against the Lopez-owned network. He voted against the House-approval to adopt the Senate version of the highly disputed Anti-Terror bill that was subsequently signed into law by President Duterte, Abante added.

This was to vehemently deny the “company union leader” tagged against him. This is because Abante belongs to the NUP that is part of the ruling majority coalition at the Lower House led by the President’s PDP-Laban partymates.

Like all attendees on SONA day, Abante complained, he had to take COVID-19 testing twice less than 24 hours apart. On the eve of SONA day, he underwent swabbing and got the results the next morning. Even if tested negative, he still underwent rapid test before being allowed entry at the session halls of the Batasan.

For the sake of the 75-year-old President Duterte who also belongs to the senior age group most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, Abante conceded to the necessity of such extra precautionary measures taken by the Presidential Security Group. The 69-year-old Manila Congressman admitted he too, has serious co-morbidities. Aside from diabetes, he also has a history of heart by-pass surgery. Nonetheless, Abante believes he ought to be physically present at the session halls as the House minority leader.

For his part, Atienza also demands to be physically present, attend, and participate at the House floor deliberations and debate, especially on vital national and local bills at the18th Congress. Atienza, who turns 79 years old next month, rued he is not among the “lucky 22” House leaders and members selected to attend the sessions at the Batasan.

“But we are being muted, just one click away (online),” Atienza bewailed among his complaints against “virtual” sessions.

Atienza obviously could no longer play his “quorum” card. The maverick opposition leader questions the “quorum,” or the required number of attendance of House members present at the floor, especially if there is voting to be made. He could not even check if indeed there were “301 out of 302” House members in attendance on SONA day.

“Virtual” sessions or not, it’s just the start of the second regular sessions of the 18th Congress. But it’s not too late yet for the House opposition ranks to get their acts together to become effective fiscalizers in the remaining two years of the Duterte administration.

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