The end of the rainbow?

De Venecia’s reign is challenged

Our latest two-part series is on the ongoing power struggles in the House. The series, released in time for the opening of Congress and the 2004 State of the Nation Address, tackles the challenge to the leadership of Jose de Venecia, who is almost sure to be Speaker of the 13th House, marking the fourth time that he has been at the helm of that body. Since 1992, de Venecia has been able to build “rainbow coalitions” by offering positions, power and money to win the loyalty and support of congressmen.

As the first part of the series, “The End of the Rainbow?”, says, never has de Venecia’s control of the House been as challenged as it is now. Ironically, the most serious challenge comes from within the ranks of the administration coalition. A new bloc of legislators well connected to the presidential palace, especially to First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, threatens to substantially weaken de Venecia’s hold on the House of Representatives and reduce his role to that of a figurehead.

AS THE 13th Congress opens today, Jose de Venecia Jr. – Speaker of three previous post-Marcos Congresses and tireless architect of rainbow coalitions – finds himself in the middle of a scramble for power, money, and prestige more vicious than any he had experienced since he first became Speaker of the House in 1992.

Although the 67-year-old veteran congressman is sure to be elected Speaker for the fourth time, a new bloc of legislators well connected to the presidential palace, especially to First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, threatens to substantially weaken de Venecia’s hold on the House of Representatives and reduce his role to that of a figurehead.

“The realpolitik now in the House is that the era of FVR (former president Fidel V. Ramos) and JDV is over,” said a Lakas congressman, who asked not to be named.

De Venecia, the Pangasinan representative who first became Speaker during the Ramos presidency, remains closely associated with the former president, who is also from Pangasinan. While he is an Arroyo ally, he is perceived to be more of a Ramos man.

In her previous term as president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, unlike Ramos, generally kept Congress at arms length, leaving the politicking in the House to de Venecia. That is likely to change, as Arroyo seems poised to take a more active hand in the legislative process.

She now has the support of many legislators, who are dissatisfied with de Venecia’s leadership and have found themselves marginalized from key House positions because of the maneuverings of the “Spice Boys” congressmen who surround the Speaker.

An old-time representative observed that the competition among his colleagues in the legislature has never been so intense because of the existence of many more power groups asserting what they claim to be their rightful share in about 130 major positions, including committee chairmanships and memberships, that are at stake every time a new Congress is elected.

Last week, de Venecia himself admitted to neophyte legislators he was facing the “incredibly difficult challenge” of putting up a “Rainbow Coalition 4” in the House of Representatives.

“For every committee, there is a request from 10 to 15 (for chairmanships). There are 60 applicants for (12 slots in) the Commission on Appointments. I have to take care of the Liberal Party, the Lakas Christian Muslim Democrats, the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Nacionalista Party, the independents and party-list organizations, the PDP-Laban, social democrats, and the Muslim political parties,” de Venecia said.

In the past, de Venecia cobbled together “rainbow coalitions” by bringing in members of opposition parties into the administration’s fold and giving them juicy committee memberships and chairmanships that meant additional allowances as well as power they could parlay to their advantage, such as access to government contracts.

Thus, over the years, the Speaker has earned the reputation of being the quintessential trapo or traditional politician whose actions are motivated more by expediency and self-interest than anything else.

De Venecia’s rainbow coalitions were held together by money and power rather than a common legislative agenda. In his run for the speakership in 2001, for example, some legislators said they were offered P200,000 each for their vote, according to the PCIJ book, The Rulemakers: How the Wealthy and Well-Born Dominate Congress.

De Venecia also ensured support for key bills endorsed by Malacañang by paying for votes or even just mere attendance during the voting, the book said. On Christmas, he gave out Christmas gifts to congressmen of P100,000 to P200,000 each, as well as monthly allowances of P50,000 to P100,000 each, according to The Rulemakers.

In 1992, with newly elected President Ramos’s sponsorship, de Venecia made Lakas the majority party in the House by raiding the ranks of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), whose members switched to the Ramos party en masse.

In 2001, de Venecia succeeded in becoming Speaker by making Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.’s NPC a partner of Lakas, to which the newly installed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo nominally belonged.

Ironically, in 2004, when Lakas has a far bigger majority in Congress than in the past, de Venecia’s leadership is being challenged, no longer by the opposition, but by a faction of the party that calls itself Kampi for Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino, after a coalition hastily put together in 1997 to support then Senator Arroyo’s foiled presidential bid.

“Joe de Venecia no longer has full reign over the House,” declared a senior legislator involved in negotiations for positions for members of his party. “If he is the wily politician as he is, he should not go against the flow.”

An NPC congressman, for his part, said, “If JDV does not put his foot down, he will be substantially weakened.”

The First Gentleman’s involvement in Kampi was obscure in the initial weeks until his personal appearance at a Kampi meeting at the Shangri-la Makati hotel on Thursday evening. At the same time, his son Juan Miguel or Mikey, the newly elected congressman of Pampanga, was hosting a dinner party for de Venecia at the Manila Polo Club, also in Makati. President Arroyo herself was at that party.

“With the perceived support from the President, the entry of Kampi created a more potentially powerful grouping in the House to protect the President and push her legislative programs,” said Liberal Party president Florencio B. Abad, a former Batanes congressman.

The LP is associated with former President Corazon C. Aquino, whose son Benigno III is a leading member of the party. “This is completely a different ball game now. The entry of Kampi strengthens the other parties in the majority coalition like LP,” Abad added.

The unease with de Venecia started in June, while Congress was preoccupied with the canvassing of votes for president and vice president. Many legislators then were beginning to feel frustrated by the manner in which the so-called “Spice Boys” and a small clique of congressmen threw their weight around in the House and boasted of their connections to the Speaker. This clique hangs around the de Venecia residence in Dasmariñas Village, Makati City.

Moreover, Kampi felt they would be left out of choice committee positions, because of de Venecia’s alliance with the NPC. Cojuangco’s party split its support in the May elections: one faction went for Arroyo, while the other supported opposition candidate Fernando Poe Jr.

Only 30 of 68 NPC representatives in the previous House went for Arroyo, although the party was then technically still part of the administration coalition, having secured, through its alliance with de Venecia, 21 of 52 committee chairmanships in the 12th Congress.

In the 12th House, de Venecia gave “Spice Boys” Rolando G. Andaya Jr. of Camarines Sur, Juan Miguel F. Zubiri of Bukidnon, and Robert Ace S. Barbers of Surigao del Norte the juicy chairmanships of the appropriations, legislative franchises, and accounts committees, respectively. All three were then second-term congressmen. The tradition in the House is that these choicest of chairmanships go to three-term representatives, who are supposed to have had more experience in the legislature.

Some lawmakers said that since June, the “Spice Boys” had been behaving like they had secured the positions they wanted and projected themselves as de Venecia’s screening committee in charge of placing representatives in key leadership and committee positions in the House.

Some legislators also accused de Venecia of rocking the boat on the charter change issue. Instead of supporting the administration, he contradicted President Arroyo’s preference for a constitutional convention, with the amendments taking effect at the end of her term in 2010.

De Venecia is pushing for a constituent assembly to amend the constitution before 2007 and even reminded Arroyo of her supposed promise to serve as transition president under a parliamentary government.

The last straw for Kampi was de Venecia’s declaration of a 100-day moratorium on charter change debates in the House. Kampi lawmakers said the President was for a moratorium of six months to one year so that Congress could concentrate on passing the budget and new tax measures.

Kampi came out in the open on July 2, with Antipolo City Rep. Ronaldo V. Puno as interim president. They immediately claimed to have recruited 72 members, mainly from Lakas and NPC, the two biggest parties in the House.

The few faces in Kampi who showed up before the media succeeded in giving the impression they had the numbers to challenge de Venecia’s leadership. The inclusion of Mikey Arroyo and presidential brother-in-law, Rep. Ignacio T. Arroyo of Negros Occidental, in the Kampi roster attracted political opportunists to join the new bloc.

Moreover, congressmen who are known allies of the First Gentleman, like Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero A. Pichay Jr. and Antique Rep. Exequiel Javier, left Lakas and joined Kampi. Many took it as a signal that Kampi will emerge as the President’s party, and Lakas will eventually be marginalized. Kampi, however, was unable to put up a candidate to contest de Venecia’s hold on the speakership.

Its main political card is its perceived closeness to the Arroyos, which in turn means easy access to Malacañang, the supreme dispenser of power and favors.

Historically, the President’s party becomes the dominant one as political opportunists switch to the party that can give them the best deals in terms of positions.

Kampi met on July 9 with the President, bragging about its numbers and ensuring full support for her programs. Arroyo advised them against rocking the boat in the House, but did not discourage her relatives and allies from reorganizing the party.

President Arroyo remains on record as president of Kampi. At the same time, she is co-chair of Lakas together with de Venecia. Kampi and Lakas have agreed to merge, just as they did in 1998 when President Arroyo abandoned her presidential ambitions to be de Venecia’s running mate under the Lakas-Kampi ticket.

But barely a day after the groups of de Venecia and Puno agreed to the merger, Kampi turned to the Liberal Party, the third largest grouping in the House.

Puno first wooed the Liberals at a party hosted by Mikey Arroyo. Puno, whose reputation has been tarnished by corruption and election-rigging charges, told them he wanted to start in Congress on a clean slate, and he believed he could do so with the help of the LP. He also assured the LP that the merger with Lakas was a merger of resources rather than of parties.

Together, Kampi’s initial 72 members and LP’s 32 assures them of clout in the new Congress. In addition, more recruits are said to be ready to join the ranks. Altogether, the bloc thinks that it can get 116 seats in the 236-member House, although their opponents say they have much less than that. Whatever the case, they have the numbers to rock de Venecia’s boat.

But for now, restive legislators are muting their challenge. “In the immediate future, there is no time to effect change in the speakership. It is a move that can create so much uncertainty and instability,” explained Abad. “What is keeping President Arroyo and Kampi from pushing a reorganization (of the House) to its fullest is the more important task of getting her priority bills passed.”