Editorial

Absentee lawmakers

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It’s time our representatives in the House lived by a basic rule that ordinary Filipinos have to live by: no work, no pay. “Kayo  ang  boss  ko,” President Aquino memorably said. On Election Day, the bosses should check their well-paid representatives’ excuse slips.

Reports say that in 2012, the two record-holders were Iloilo Rep. Augusto Syjuco and Pampanga Rep. Anna York Bondoc, who were present at only 35 out of 61 sessions. (Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s attendance was even lower at 33 sessions, but then she was detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center for most of that time.) On the other extreme, 35 had perfect attendance, led by House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.

Happily, in the latest official list (for 2011) posted on the House website, all but one of the representatives running for the Senate had excellent attendance. Out of a total of 59 session days, Aurora’s Sonny Angara was present 54 days; Bayan Muna’s Teddy Casiño, 55; San Juan’s JV Ejercito, 56; Zambales’ Mitos Magsaysay, 58; and Cagayan’s Jackie Enrile, 30.

Yet absentees continue to receive their full pay and benefits, legitimate and otherwise. Reports say that their monthly salary is P90,000. On top of that, they get P70 million in pork barrel. And finally, when news leaked that they received Christmas allowances of a cool half-million pesos each, one explained that it wasn’t really so big an amount because anyway it included the monthly P300,000 allowance to run their offices! These are just their lawful perks from the branch of our democracy that is closest to the pulse of the people and that holds the power of the purse.

Our lawmakers have traditionally argued that their work is to legislate, and that consulting with their constituents is the most important part of that work. They say legislative spadework is done in congressional committees or during legislative inquiries, not all of which are highly visible and none of which is recorded during the congressional roll call. They don’t have to be always present to do their job.

But when they are present in plenary sessions, we see our elected honorables chatting and joking among themselves while a colleague perorates at the podium. It would seem that in contrast to the serious work they purportedly do in committees or in the field with constituents, the plenary sessions are just a big show. In that light, the official attendance record privileges those who are visible for the roll call but disappear thereafter. Being present on the floor, so to speak, is at best the tip of the iceberg. The absentees strut as if they were, to pursue the metaphor, all iceberg and no tip.

Compared to the fullness of their congressional bounties, these lofty excuses sound hollow. Sure, the real hard work is rarely seen, but that is a problem not just for members of the House but for many professionals as well. Yet for the true professionals, the quiet toil is done behind the scenes because precisely it is their solemn duty to deliver the results and spare the client of painful or confounding detail. In contrast, for our representatives, transparency is a virtue and is exemplified by the floor debates.

Their absenteeism shows our representatives’ disdain for the most public phase of the legislative process. It shows that they don’t see legislation as the arena for the clash of values, of social priorities, of moral debate. It betrays their attitude that lawmaking is merely horse-trading that is best done away from public scrutiny. For them, legislation is not about big clashes on civic virtue but about scratching each other’s back. It shows how little they think of themselves and the task we have entrusted unto them.

But it also shows how little they think of us, the voters—and, alas, for that we have only ourselves to blame. We keep electing absentees because we judge them not by their legislative performance but by the number of bridges and waiting sheds they build with their pork barrel, the renaming of highways after local heroes, the jobs or contracts they give away to loyalists—or even their looks.

Before you vote on May 13, check to see if your candidate has a record of not showing up for work. It is true that absenteeism is an old problem. Today, more than a quarter century after we reclaimed our liberty at Edsa 1, we have realized that democracy does not happen overnight and that we build it slowly, brick by lonely brick. Let the campaign against absentee lawmakers be the next brick laid in 2013 by the patient but vigilant Filipino voter.

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