The interminable debate on the reproductive health (RH) bill instructs us, yet again, in the basic lesson of elite politics: Everything is addition. The legislative corollary to this axiom follows naturally. Those who have the numbers call for a vote. Those who don’t, such as the minority in the Senate and in the House who oppose the much-amended, now-diluted RH bill, seek to delay the moment of truth.
Because of the way the men who control both chambers of Congress have conducted themselves on the RH bill issue, the women who stand to gain the most from its passage and the families who depend on them have to contend not only with the idiosyncrasies of the biological clock, but with the tyranny of the legislative calendar as well.
This is the context in which last week’s fateful exchange of words on the floor of the Senate, between Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and principal RH bill sponsor Sen. Pia Cayetano, is best understood.
Last Tuesday, Cayetano made what she called a “reasonable request,” asking the Senate to allot 30 minutes of the session to RH bill business. Out of the eight senators who had originally said they wanted to introduce amendments to the bill, only two remained: Enrile and Sen. Ralph Recto. The 30 minutes, she said, would allow both senators to introduce their amendments.
In a previous caucus, Enrile had told Cayetano he had already prepared his amendments—the same Enrile who has spoken proudly more than once of his policy of caucusing with senators as preparation for actual sessions.
Last Tuesday, however, after Cayetano asked an unprepared Enrile when he would be ready with his amendments, the veteran legislator riding the coattails of a popular impeachment trial snapped: “I do not know, Madame Senator, when I’m ready.”
In a news conference she conducted two days after the exchange, Cayetano correctly pointed out the breach in the customary courtesy that legislators extend to one another. “Kung sabihin mo sa aking mag antay ako hanggang maputi na ang uwak, iba naman yang usapan (If you tell me that I should wait until crows turn white, that’s another matter altogether).” But she knew the real reason for Enrile’s outburst. “We all know that every day that I patiently wait is one more day that this bill will be delayed. And I know, as they know, and they know whom I am talking about, their objective is not to bring this to a vote.”
And there you have it. Caucuses and democratic principles be damned, but because Enrile and his majority leader, Sen. Tito Sotto, do not want the RH bill to pass, they will do all they can to prevent a vote. Why? Because they will lose.
On the RH bill, President Aquino seems to have gone AWOL. The last, best hope for enactment of the bill is a complicated maneuver: passage in the House and strong and concerted public support, which will both serve to put pressure on the Senate. Otherwise, the women who need the bill’s protection the most will have to wait until Enrile finds himself ready.
A grammar lesson
I do not know, Madame Senator, when I’m ready.”
It is interesting to note the obvious grammatical error in Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s retort to Sen. Pia Cayetano. Surely he meant to say “when I will be ready”—and that was exactly how some stories reported the line, replacing the error, thus: “when I [will be] ready,” using an editor’s privilege of a bracketed intervention.
But Enrile is an accomplished English speaker—his training as a lawyer, his time in Harvard, his six decades in the upper (English-speaking) reaches of Philippine politics have all contributed to his easy command of English. He wouldn’t have made such a basic mistake, unless he made a telling slip.
Perhaps he meant to say “I do not know if I’m ready,” but realized at the last second that that would make him sound unprofessional, something out of character for a man who is dedicated to the gospel of thorough preparation. Or perhaps he meant, “I do not know when I will ever be ready”—his real sentiment, as his positioning on the issue suggests. Who knows? But there is a lesson for all of us here. Perhaps the two thoughts short-circuited each other, and Enrile ended up with a line that really should read: “I don’t know if I want to be ready.”