Rumble in the House
The tawdriest, sleaziest show in town at the moment is happening not in some seedy honky-tonk in the metro’s underbelly, but in that grand hall called the House of Representatives, where, over the last few weeks, a rumble for the speakership has raged full-on, at levels an agape Filipino public has previously not seen.
Perhaps the elections leading to the incoming 18th Congress, and events before that, were already a forewarning of the barnyard spectacle about to happen. The May 2019 midterm polls were, to many observers, the dirtiest elections in years, the vote-buying said to be particularly brazen and rampant. Previous to this, in the last Congress led by Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, pork barrel made a loud and lavish comeback, with lawmakers openly tangling with Malacañang over billions of pesos of insertions in the proposed 2019 budget. The use of money to carpet-bomb a constituency and buy off votes and alliances is, of course, generic political practice, but this time the old scrims that imposed some measure of discretion were off. It was as if, not unlike in the Duterte administration’s drug war, the floodgates of impunity had been opened, shame thrown out the window and flagrant behavior once considered verboten was now the newfangled normal.
Was it any surprise, then, that the first talk on who might become the new Speaker of the House involved charges of bribery and vote-buying? Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez, a spurned aspirant, claimed that up to P1 million per representative was being dangled for votes. Another aspirant, Alan Peter Cayetano, virtually confirmed this when he dared his rivals to take a lie-detector test on the vote-buying allegations.
The brawl was on. While Cayetano was the most visibly moist-eyed for the position, the names of Representatives Lord Allan Velasco and Martin Romualdez were bruited about as enjoying more powerful backing from the people who matter in the present dispensation—such as President Duterte’s children, Davao Mayor Sara and Representative Paolo, who made no effort to hide their disdain for Cayetano. The shifting winds made for a dizzying daily guessing game; Cayetano claimed the President had engineered a term-sharing agreement between him and Velasco, only for the latter to back out at the last minute. It appeared Velasco had the upper hand, but then Sara Duterte’s political party Hugpong ng Pagbabago endorsed an unknown, Isidro Ungab, as a compromise candidate, further muddling the fray.
In a draw, what are the combatants to do but make a beeline for the top game official? And so the three front-runners were seen trooping to Malacañang and sidling up to the President at various functions, to implore him to break the logjam and make the choice for the congressmen. In the past, the mere whiff of presidential intervention in the choosing of the Senate President or House Speaker in so direct a manner would have been considered offensive, a violation of Congress’ putative independence from the executive.
But this is not that era, and so when the announcement on the next Speaker of the House came, it came not from its session hall but from Malacañang—made by the President himself during a speech. “Your Speaker will be Alan Peter Cayetano,” he said. “He shares the term with Lord Velasco, and Martin Romualdez will be the majority leader.” It was not an endorsement; it was a command.
A grateful Cayetano, in a preview of what to expect from his leadership, was soon crowing on social media: “The DDSM (Diehard Duterte Supermajority) has come to town.” The President also made clear his marching orders, which the “diehard” Cayetano must deliver now that he’s achieved his ambition by the grace of the Lord by the Pasig: no longer the shift to a federal form of government, but Charter change. Cayetano’s first proposal in that regard? Either term extensions, or the lifting of term limits, for congressmen. At least he can’t be said to be not thinking of his fellows’ collective welfare.
Is Cayetano all but secure now with the presidential anointment? Is his eager-beaver carrot-dangling enough to mollify the rest of the simmering assembly that, until Mr. Duterte’s switcheroo intervention (he previously promised to be hands-off on the matter), appeared to be favoring someone else? It seems not. As this is being written, Paolo Duterte has publicly hinted that the battle is far from over, and that a “coup d’etat” (his words) may even happen on July 22, when the new Congress opens.
To quote the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, but with a grim chuckle: “My God, the fun.”
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