Representatives scramble for power, peso, and privilege

The second part of the series, “Representatives Scramble for Power, Pesos, and Prestige describes the struggle for committee chairmanships, especially of the most powerful and moneyed committees. It lists the 132 major leadership positions in the House that are for grabs and explains that the reason for this scramble is that the holders of these major positions are entitled to bigger allowances and staff allocations. But more than that, these posts also open up windows of opportunity for getting more government contracts, appointments of constituents to choice government positions, as well as countless business deals that can be secured for relatives, friends and allies. A committee position can also be used to shake down businesses in efforts disguised as “inquiry in aid of legislation.”

THE POLITICS in the House of Representatives has traditionally been defined by the struggle among legislators for the perks of a Congress seat. These are power, money, and prestige.

Central to this struggle are 132 major leadership positions in the House: the chairmanships of 52 committees, 17 vice chairmanships of the powerful appropriations committee, 36 memberships in the rules committee, 12 seats in the Commission on Appointments (CA), six slots in the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET), three deputy speakerships, and six vice chairmanships of the committee on accounts.

The holders of these major positions are entitled to bigger allowances and staff allocations. But more than that, these posts also open up windows of opportunity for getting more government contracts, appointments of constituents to choice government positions, as well as countless business deals that can be secured for relatives, friends and allies. A committee position can also be used to shake down businesses in efforts disguised as “inquiry in aid of legislation.”

If parliamentary tradition is observed, third-term congressmen are given first preference for the top posts, while second-termers get second priority. First-term legislators are accommodated only as committee members or, at most, vice chairmen of minor committees.

These positions are considered rewards for their support for the House leadership or as political accommodation to a powerful politician or business patron. Qualifications and track record are considered, but these are not the primary criteria.

Manila Rep. Jaime C. Lopez, for example, chaired the committee on banks and financial intermediaries in the last Congress. Many congressmen say that Emilio Yap of the Manila Bulletin Publishing Corp. has influence over who gets the chairmanship of the banks committee. Lopez is said to be the choice of the powerful publisher, who also owns Philtrust Bank.

In 2002, Tarlac Rep. Jesli Lapus asked that Lopez be discharged from the committee for sitting on important bills, like the amendments of the General Banking Act and the charter of the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corp. (PDIC). Lapus, who was Land Bank president before he became congressman, would have been more qualified to handle the committee assigned to Lopez, a former legal counsel of PDIC. It is likely, however, that Lopez will keep his post in the 13th Congress.

The scramble for positions is essentially a struggle for a share of the spoils, and the winners are those with the numbers. For now, however, party memberships are in flux. Some representatives have memberships in two parties; they have “dual citizenship,” their colleagues say.

The major power blocs contending for juicy positions are Lakas-Nacionalista Party, which has roughly 69 House seats; Kampi-Liberal Party, which claims 116 seats (although their rivals say they only have 79); the Nationalist People’s Coalition, which has 45; and party-list groups, which have 24 seats. In addition, there are smaller parties like PDP-Laban and Partido Demokratiko Sosyalista ng Pilipinas (PDSP), as well as independents.

In the current House, 70 are on their third term, 84 on their second term, while 82 are neophytes.

There should be no problem in apportioning the positions given the fact that there are enough committee chairmanships and equivalent positions for all the seniors. The complication lies in the percentage allocation for each power bloc. Kampi-LP wants half of the pie, NPC is asking for one-third, leaving Lakas and its affiliates with only 20 percent.

Kampi and LP are demanding two deputy speakerships, 34 committee chairmanships, including those on rules and appropriations, 11 vice chairmanships (mostly in the appropriations committee), five seats in the CA, and three seats in the HRET.

The NPC also wants major positions for 23 of its senior members. It asked for the chairmanship of 11 committees: ways and means, agriculture, suffrage and electoral reforms, local government, health, agrarian reform, energy, communications, natural resources, housing, and women.

The party also wants three of 12 CA slots, one each representing Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, and one slot in the HRET.

CA and HRET slots are traditionally divided proportionately among the major parties in the House. These are deemed “party entitlements” and not among the spoils up for grabs.

“We are being conservative and realistic in our position, considering that we lost some members. We used to have 21 committee chairmen from NPC,” said Lapus, himself a major contender for the powerful committee on ways and means.

Party-list groups have also joined the fray for choice positions. Seventeen of them, including those of Bayan Muna, have thrown their support behind de Venecia’s leadership. But in exchange, they want slots in the CA and HRET and committees for the senior members.

Another party-list bloc is composed of Akbayan’s three representatives. The party is almost certain to retain the chairmanship of the committee on civil, political and human rights although Rep. Loretta Ann Rosales preferred a “promotion” to the committee on foreign affairs.

As in the previous Congresses, the most vicious struggles in the current House are on the committees on appropriations and ways and means and the Commission on Appointments.

The appropriations committee, which deliberates on the national budget, is considered the juiciest committee, where even the subcommittee chairmanships are hotly contested. Members can use their positions in this committee to wangle projects for their districts and contracts for themselves or their allies.

Because so many representatives want to be in this committee, its membership has increased from only 45 in the Eighth Congress which was opened in 1987 to 170-75 percent of the entire House-in the 12th Congress, which ended its term in June.

In the 13th Congress, de Venecia resolved the impasse over the committee chairmanship by getting Albay Rep. Joey Salceda of Lakas and Camarines Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. of LP to agree on a “term-sharing” formula. Andaya will serve in the first 18 months of the congressional term, while Salceda will sit as senior vice chair and concurrently chair the economic affairs committee.

Andaya’s late father chaired the appropriations committee for 11 years, from 1987 until he completed three terms in 1998. The 35-year-old Andaya, a CPA lawyer like his father, practically “inherited” the position in 2001 when de Venecia became Speaker for the third time.

Salceda made a lot of money as a topnotch stockbroker before he went into politics in 2001. A former student of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he styles himself as an economist.

The appropriations committee has 17 vice chairmen for the same number of sub-committees in charge of scrutinizing the budget allocations of major government agencies. That is why an appropriations committee vice chairman is considered a major position because that puts him on equal footing with the chairman of the other standing committees like public works, agriculture, and education.

In the 12th Congress, for example, Iloilo Rep. Augusto Syjuco chose to be vice chairman of the subcommittee on agriculture of the appropriations committee rather than chair the agriculture committee.

He said that the post he preferred is more powerful because it has influence in the 29 agencies of the Department of Agriculture. “The money goes through you, you get the projects,” he explained. “As vice chair, I could get about P200 million a year (in projects) for my district; as agriculture committee chair, I could bring home at most P100 million a year.”

Other committees high on the preference list of congressmen are public works and highways, agriculture and food, transportation and communications, ways and means, education, health, games and amusement, legislative franchises, and national defense because these involve agencies with potential sources of “budget insertions” or additional funds that can be channeled to their districts.

The HRET is also considered as a plum posting. As reported in thje PCIJ book, The Rulemakers, the nine-member HRET passed nine resolutions in 2003 alone that granted themselves and their staff additional allowances and benefits. These included P40,000 each in special welfare assistance for all tribunal members and P57,000 each in allowances and benefits for all officials and staff.

Chairmanships of the committees on appropriations and ways and means, as well as the CA top post are also prime targets because of the additional allowances, plus the influence that can be extended for political and personal interests.

The CA has separate committees distributed to the 12 senators and 12 congressmen comprising it. CA members get additional staff personnel and allowances of at least P100,000 a month. For this reason, de Venecia found it hard to choose those who would hold the 12 House slots in the CA among 60 contenders vying for them.

As of now, Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay and Western Samar Rep. Marcelino Libanan are locked in a struggle to head the House contingent to the CA. Pichay, a staunch Arroyo ally, was a recent convert from Lakas to Kampi, while Libanan used to be with NPC but recently joined Lakas.

Pichay chaired the committee on national defense in the previous Congress while Libanan steered the justice committee that took up controversial impeachment complaints against Commission on Elections Commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco and Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr.

To accommodate all those who want to be in committees, House leaders have over the years increased the number of regular committees. There were only 40 committees when the first post-Marcos Congress was inaugurated in 1987. Today there are 52. In addition, special committees or ad hoc bodies have been created to accommodate congressmen who were not given regular committee chairmanships.

De Venecia, for example, added one more committee this year by splitting the committee on transportation and communications. Bacolod City Rep. Monico Puentevella is his choice for the transportation committee while the committee on communications will likely be handed to Cebu Rep. Simeon Kintanar, a former commissioner of the National Telecommunications Commission, who is an NPC member.

Lapus of NPC and Negros Oriental Rep. Herminio G. Teves are in a close fight over the chairmanship of the committee on ways and means that will deliberate on revenue bills.

Lapus boasts of the support from other parties outside NPC like Lakas, Kampi and LP. Besides, he said his age is an advantage because it involves a taxing job that requires stamina. He said Teves, at 84, could no longer cope with the physical rigors needed to steer the committee, given its critical importance at this time of ballooning budget deficit.

Teves, for his part, brags of his seniority over Lapus and his almost perfect attendance in the committee’s hearings in the previous Congress. He enjoys the support of congressmen from the Visayas. He also boasts of being the top taxpayer in the House, giving him the moral ascendancy to push for ways to generate additional revenues, such as lifting the confidentiality of income tax returns.

In the past, the strong lobby from big corporations against tax measures that will hit them has been a source of illegitimate income for lawmakers. Lobbyists are known to fill the pockets of lawmakers or send them on all-expense paid vacations abroad in exchange for votes against certain tax bills, or the insertion of provisions beneficial to their businesses.

Counting Committees
Standing Committees, House of Representatives

1946-1949 51
1950-1953 30
1954-1957 35
1958-1961 43
1962-1965 44
1966-1969 43
1970-1973 27
1987-1992 40
1992-1995 46
1995-1998 47
1998-2001 48
2001-2004 51
2004-2007 52

So far, de Venecia has been able to hold the fort by distributing the positions among the power blocs of Congress. Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, for example, initially wanted to run for Speaker, but was supposedly offered the chairmanship of the trade and industry committee instead.

To appease more people, de Venecia also plans to increase the number of deputy Speakers. There is currently one deputy Speaker for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The Speaker intends to add one more for Muslim Mindanao and has reportedly offered that post to Basilan Rep. Gerry Salappudin. He also planned to have two for Luzon, offering the post of Deputy Speaker for Central and Northern Luzon to Tarlac Rep. Beingno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who was initially interested in the speakership. Aquino, however, declined.

At the moment, even as there is widespread disgruntlement with JDV’s leadership, none of the other wannabes were serious contenders because they did not have the organization to muster the numbers. As President Arroyo said at the dinner for de Venecia last week, “Nobody is not for Joe de Venecia as Speaker.”

Aquino, who was initially persuaded by idealistic and young Liberal Party members to put up a fight against de Venecia, conceded that the realpolitik in the Congress is that representatives vote for the one who can give them the best positions with their corresponding perks. “Once you go into hurtful reforms,” he said, “your support begins to erode.”

Aquino, for one, was unlikely to have the support of many congressmen because he wants to initiate reforms in the House. He wants salaries of congressmen to be based on attendance in committee and plenary sessions, stringent rules on pork barrel spending, and a ban on foreign trips.

“For you to have a chance of succeeding, you must have a support base. And if you want to reform an institution as maligned as the House of Representatives, you cannot have a business-as-usual attitude. You will be presiding over a House during a period of austerity. It may be tolerable in the first year, but how about on the approach to the election year?” he asked.

At the very least, Aquino said, the committees on good government and ethics must be given to members with high credibility. These are committees that look into government anomalies and check on the behavior of members of the House.

“To be able to reform the image of the institution, we should start with self-discipline of each member,” he said.

That is not going to be easy. Aquino, after all, could not even get the solid support of his own party mates in LP for his speakership bid.

Power Groups
Top Five Committees in the House of Representatives (based on membership)

Eighth Congress (1987-92)
198 members]
Trade and industry 45 23
Transportation and communication 44 22
Appropriations 43 22
Ways and means 41 21
Foreign affairs 38 19
Ninth Congress (1992-95)
[199 members]
Appropriations 67 34
Education and culture 56 28
Public works and highways 55 28
Ways and means 53 27
Transportation and communication 51 26
Tenth Congress (1995-98)
[220 members]
Appropriations 72 33
Education and culture 62 28
Ways and means 61 28
Agriculture and food 59 27
Public works and highways 58 26
Eleventh Congress (1998-2001)
[220 members]
Appropriations 117 53
Agriculture and food 88 40
Transportation and communication 70 32
Ways and means 70 32
Public works and highways 69 31
Twelfth Congress (2001-04)
[228 members]
Appropriations 170 75
Public works and highways 140 61
Agriculture and fisheries 130 57
Transportation and communication 120 53
Games and amusements 110 48