THE OPENING session on Monday of the 14th Congress showed the neophytes of the House of Representatives what the chamber is like when political interests clash and result in frenzy–which actually occurs fairly often.
The first-termers stirred uneasily in their seats and stared as the House opened to shouts of older lawmakers demanding to be recognized by the presiding officer, whose legitimacy they were questioning. The din was compounded by cheers and jeers from a partisan gallery.
“We are supposed to be honorable congressmen,” Biliran Rep. Glenn Chong told the Inquirer, voicing an opinion that House members comported themselves less than honorably during the proceedings that had been described as “chaotic.”
“I heard one congresswoman, another first-termer, tell our colleague beside her: ‘Aren’t they supposed to teach us how to legislate?'” said Chong, a member of the Liberal Party.
Chong, 32, wrested the post of Biliran representative from old hand Gerardo Espina in the midterm elections. (But the Espina dynasty in the province appears intact, its other members having sought and won other elective posts.)
“There are more than 100 first-termers here. What are we teaching them?” San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora told reporters at the sidelines.
Of at least 105 first-termers in the House, 80 or so are neophytes. The rest are lawmakers returning to their old posts after the obligatory break from serving three consecutive terms.
The House membership has yet to be finalized, with certain party-list representatives still awaiting proclamation by the Commission on Elections.
‘Mr. Presiding Officer!’
Antipolo City Rep. Roberto Puno, whose post was once held by his elder brother, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno, said he was “a little bit surprised” but was “not unprepared.”
“We already knew that it was going to happen, but I was surprised by the intensity of those who were competing,” he said.
The lawmakers were preparing to finally elect a Speaker after two months of fierce name-calling between Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia and his challenger, Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia.
As soon as House Secretary General Roberto Nazareno ascended the rostrum, members of the opposition and of the Garcia camp rose and filled the plenary with shouts of “Mr. Presiding Officer! Mr. Presiding Officer!”–precisely to question his serving as such.
Nazareno, known to be close to De Venecia, as well as the opposition and the Garcia camp, had wanted someone else to preside over the amendment of the House rules to pave the way for a secret vote for the new Speaker.
But the majority that favored De Venecia voted down the motions of Garcia’s supporters to do away with Nazareno.
Passions were at a high pitch as the debates that started at 10 a.m. showed no sign of a clear result at past 2 p.m. They rose even higher because of apprehensions of not having a House leader by the time President Macapagal-Arroyo was to deliver her State of the Nation Address at 4 p.m.
‘Opposition better off’
According to Zamora, the administration lawmakers controlling the majority should have reached a consensus on who the Speaker should be before coming to the plenary on Monday.
He said that as 4 p.m. drew nearer, even the names of opposition lawmakers were being mentioned as possible presiding officer at small group discussions during breaks in the session.
“They are proposing that I, or even Bongbong, take over,” Zamora said in reference to Ilocos Norte Rep. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is technically on his first term but is actually no neophyte because he held the post before his sister Imee took over.
“The opposition was far better off. If possible, we can take over the leadership of the House,” said Zamora, who was chosen minority leader in a minority caucus held before Monday’s opening session.
Chong said the question raised by Shariff Kabunsuan Rep. Didagen Dilangalen on the legitimacy of Nazareno as presiding officer had made sense.
“Congressman Digs had a point, but somehow his motion was drowned out. Most of the congressmen who raised issues made sense. But we could have conducted ourselves better,” Chong said, adding:
“The majority should have reached an agreement before going to the session.”
Spectacle or democracy?
Chong said there should be fewer such episodes in the House. “We were reduced to a spectacle,” he said.
But at least two other neophytes believed that the proceedings showed democracy at work.
“I would have been more uneasy if there was no one who rose and spoke,” said Valenzuela Rep. Rexlon Gatchalian.
“Those who [did] are some of the best,” he said, mentioning Dilangalen, Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla and Mandaluyong Rep. Neptali Gonzales II–all first-termers on their second turn in the House.
Said Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez: “The proceedings were a sign of a vibrant democracy. I had no problem with it as certain questions had to be raised and answered.”
Still, Romualdez said, the House needed reforms, and neophytes like himself could play a major role with their sheer number: “With new blood, we will bring fresh ideas to the House. We can make a difference.”
Gatchalian and Chong agreed.
“Despite our different political affiliations, I believe it will only be a matter of time before we become a force,” Chong said.
“We’ve talked about it,” Gatchalian said. “When progressive bills for the benefit of our people will be pushed, the first-termers will be behind [these measures].”
The President’s youngest child and the newest Arroyo in the House was seen listening intently to the proceedings, but would not comment on what he had seen and heard.
“What happened already happened. How I feel about it will not change anything,” said Camarines Sur Rep. Diosdado Arroyo II.
As though making good on his word, Gatchalian on Wednesday fired his first broadside by calling on Public Works Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane to sack the officials involved in the long-delayed rehabilitation of the Tullahan Bridge in Valenzuela.
He also sought the blacklisting of the contractor, RC Ranos Construction Inc.
“Except for the swift completion of the project, nothing else can assuage the feelings of my constituents but the sacking of the Department of Public Works and Highways men behind this deplorable [delay],” Gatchalian said.
“We have been tormented long enough by those who have committed two of the seven deadliest sins–sloth and greed–and another unforgivable sin in public service called stupidity,” he said.
According to Gatchalian, the rehabilitation of the Tullahan Bridge is under the supervision of DPWH Regional Director Josefino Rigor.
He said the contract cost was P2.5 million over the original winning bid price of more than P60 million.