For the last few weeks, we have been witnesses to a highly contentious, if not bitter, speakership race between former Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and newly elected Speaker Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco. This bitter fight stems from the highly publicized “term-sharing agreement” between the two gentlemen which was arrived at, if not even brokered by no less than the President, at the beginning of the 18th Congress in July 2019.
However, as the supposed end of the first portion of the deal approaches, it has degenerated into a virtual barroom brawl and has unfortunately brought deep instability in the institution they both seek to lead. Over the past few weeks, we have seen Rep. Cayetano offering to resign as Speaker of the House — an offer that the plenary house rejected; congressmen like Rep. Arnolfo Teves, Jr. and Lito Atienza claiming that they were literally and figuratively muted during videoconference sessions; and a steady barrage of surrogates from both camps doing the rounds in media.
The controversy turned for the worse when then-Speaker Cayetano suspended the House sessions until November 16, effectively preventing the turnover of the speakership to Velasco on Oct. 14. Three days later, President Duterte invoked his constitutional authority and called Congress to a special session from Oct. 13 to Oct. 16 “in order to resume the congressional deliberations on the proposed 2021 national budget and to avoid any further delays on the prompt passage thereof…”
A day before the special session, the camp of Velasco convened at the Celebrity Sports Plaza in Quezon City where they declared the speakership open with 186 votes. The camp of Cayetano immediately called for a press conference characterizing it a rump session which he would not recognize.
In the end, when the numbers were clear, Cayetano admitted defeat and offered his irrevocable resignation as Speaker of the House by going live on Facebook while the majority of the House ratified Velasco’s speakership election held a day earlier.
The intense desire of both camps for the position of Speaker gives us pause to think and trace back why there is such a fierce battle to hold the position. Indeed, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the administrative head of the lower house. The lower house, as we know, is composed of 305 representatives from congressional districts all over the country and party lists representing the marginalized sectors.
Our Constitution requires a majority vote of all Members of the House to elect its Speaker. The Internal Rules of the 18th Congress supplied that the election should take place at the commencement of each Congress and whenever there is a vacancy. A plenary session is, therefore, required before Cayetano’s resignation and Velasco’s takeover under the term-sharing agreement are acted upon.
This day and age, we are all witnesses to how Zoom meetings dominate most of the deliberative processes. The same is true even for the House and Senate sessions which are now done via a hybrid of onsite and online attendance.
Interestingly, we see how the host of a Zoom meeting can maintain order or control discussions by “muting” its participants. Applied to a legislative session, this power to mute would be an interesting modern application of the widely known Robert’s Rules of Order, where the following rules of procedure are prescribed: there can only be one subject that may be before a group at one time; only one person may speak at any given time; that all members have equal rights; and that the rights of the minority must be protected, but the will of the majority must prevail.
We, therefore, have a glimpse of what is at stake behind the speakership race between Cayetano and Velasco. The stake is further emphasized by the fact that under the Constitution, the House, led by the Speaker, possesses the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment against the President, Vice-President, Members of the Supreme Court, Members of the Constitutional Commissions, and the Ombudsman. The House also holds the power of the purse as all appropriation (national budget), revenue or tariff bills, bills authorizing increase of the public debt, bills of local application, and private bills originate exclusively in the House of Representatives (Constitution, Article VI, Section 24). Some may even say that the powers granted to the Senate pale in comparison with that provided to the House.
Particularly under the internal rules of the 18th Congress, the Speaker is the one who prepares the legislative agenda for every regular session. The Speaker also exercises general supervision over all House committees which empowers him to ensure that the priority legislative measures of committees are attuned to the legislative agenda of the House. Of particular note are the committees on Ways and Means, Justice, Public Works and Highways, Local Government, and Good Government and Public Accountability, in charge of deliberating some of the country’s most important issues.
The legislative agenda, its order of discussion, and its importance to the House are determined and dictated by the seating Speaker as the political and administrative head of the House. The extent of this discretion was displayed in the swift and immediate passage of the Bayanihan Law II. In contrast, the renewal of ABS-CBN’s legislative franchise, according to some, was not afforded the urgency it deserves given the implications of the non-renewal of its franchise.
With this much power and influence wielded by the Speaker, it becomes clear why the post is much coveted. On the one hand, there is a view that this term-sharing agreement between Cayetano and Velasco is too transactional and disregards the discretion of the members to select their leader. On the other hand, some say disregarding the agreement is a violation of a gentleman’s agreement between two individuals who essentially belong to the same political bloc.
In the end, however, the most important consideration is whether the public officials involved remain faithful to their constitutional duty of serving the people with utmost responsibility and integrity. This is all too clear today when the House is called upon to act on how to fund the government during the time of an unprecedented pandemic. Both camps claim they are focused on this higher cause. How the budget is discussed and eventually passed will be the final judge of this.
This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not offered and does not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.
Christine P. Monderin is an Associate of the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department (LDRD) of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices or ACCRALAW.