The previous Congresses were hounded by quorum woes that derailed the passage of important measures. But this is no longer the case in the 17th Congress, which started a habit of ensuring the legislative mill is always churning during session days.
With this, Majority Leader Rodolfo C. Fariñas Sr. of the First District of Ilocos Norte said the lower chamber—which has 56 standing committees—remains on track with its legislative agenda.
He said lawmakers have vowed to exert all efforts to pass pending measures identified as priorities of the 17th Congress and the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council. This is despite the impeachment process against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes A. Sereno and the move to change the 1987 Constitution.
“Under the leadership of Speaker [Pantaleon] Alvarez, we will even work harder and better for the good of the people,” Fariñas told the BusinessMirror.
Daily roll call
Fariñas said the lower chamber will continue to implement a mandatory daily roll call to ensure a quorum on all its sessions.
“To assure this, we need a roll call every day,” Fariñas said.
Last year the leadership has implemented a “lockout policy”—through a memorandum—for latecomers to the 4 p.m. sessions to prevent congressmen from entering the plenary hall.
Fariñas said the move also seeks to discipline members of the lower chamber.
“Except those who are deemed present under Section 71 of our rules, all members are enjoined to be at the session hall before 4 p.m. as those appearing, after the roll call shall be marked absent,” Fariñas said in his memorandum.
The lower chamber has 292 members and 147 lawmakers are needed to declare a quorum.
The only significant incident when a quorum delayed the passage of a measure was in January, the approval of the House Concurrent Resolution 9 to constitute Congress as constituent assembly has suffered a temporary setback, as some of the minority lawmakers questioned the plenary quorum.
The lower house has been active since the start of the 17th Congress in passing its priority measures. Among its approved important bills are the Ease of Doing Business Act; Free Tertiary Education Act; Free Irrigation Act; Utilization of the Coconut Levy Fund; United National Identification System Act; Enhanced Universal Health Care Act; Amendments to the Public Service Act; mental-health law; law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression (Sogie) and the Department of Housing and Human Settlement law.
Meanwhile, other identified priority measures that will be passed by the lower chamber this 17th Congress are: the proposed revision of the Constitution; Bangsamoro basic law and minimum-wage law;
Amendment to Republic Act 8178, or the Agricultural Tariffication Act; Amendments to Government Procurement Reform Act; Traffic and Congestion Crisis Act; Contract/Anti-contractualization Act; Salary Standardization Law IV; the Corporation Code of the Philippines; measure requiring legislative franchise for operating railways and the bill creating Mindanao Railway Corp./Authority.
To ensure quick passage of bills, the House leadership has been implementing a strict policy on attendance and travels abroad during session days, resulting in the active participation of the members in lawmaking process.
With this, Fariñas said the result of a Social Weather Stations survey (SWS) showed that the people have started to appreciate the work and reforms in the lower chamber.
Fariñas is referring to a December 2017 SWS survey, which showed that the House of Representatives obtained a +43 satisfaction rating—the highest since 1988.
However, despite the consistent plenary quorum, the BusinessMirror tried, but failed to obtain a copy of the attendance records of lawmakers from the Office of the Secretary General. The Office of the Secretary General explained to the BusinessMirror that it needs the approval of all lawmakers for it to secure a copy of the record.
‘Free debates also gone’
Meanwhile, members of the minority groups called on the leadership to allow free discussions and debates among its members—both from majority and minority—before passing a bill.
Party-list Rep. Tom S. Villarin of Akbayan said the lower chamber is now a well-oiled machine running in cadence to the dictates of Alvarez.
“It churns out legislation fast through a command system of the supermajority. It leaves out a deliberative and democratic process in favor of time-bound, must-do actions requiring only viva voce of ‘ayes’ crowding out the ‘nayes.’ In the eyes of the supermajority, they are doing it for our people. In the eyes of our people, we are doing it for power,” Villarin told the BusinessMirror.
While recognizing the passage of several important measures, Party-list Rep. Teddy Baguilat Jr. of Ifugaoalso said the lower chamber should act independently in passing its legislative agenda.
“On the positive side, we have passed a number of progressive bills, such as the Sogie Act, mental-health and AIDS bills, the free public Wi-fi and tertiary education laws,” he said.
“But we have also ceased to be an independent, genuinely deliberative body since members are kowtowed into being a rubber- stamp for the administration in declaring and extending martial law, and passing of the death penalty and the [call for] constituent assembly [to amend the Charter],” Baguilat added.
According to the lawmaker, members are coerced into being submissive and surrendering their free will by following the executive’s position.
“Dissenters are punished by being removed from key House positions, or worse, having budgets for their constituencies slashed,” he said. “Congress is also being used as an instrument for witch-hunting and public persecution, as in the case of Sen. Leila De Lima, Chief Justice [Maria Lourdes] Sereno’s impeachment and the Dengvaxia hearings.”
Party-list Rep. Ayik Casilao of Anakpawis also said Congress being independent and coequal to other branches of government is now just a written principle as, in reality, the 17th Congress acted in “kowtowing the Duterte regime’s marching orders.”
“While there are pro-people legislations that the 17th Congress acted upon—free irrigation, free tuition—these bills were drowned by anti-people measures, such as the TRAIN law, National ID System, martial law in Mindanao and several other pieces of legislation deemed disadvantageous to the people,” Casilao added.
Fariñas, meanwhile, said Congress will involve the public in the crafting of the National Expenditure Program (NEP), or the proposed national budget for 2019.
“To further strengthen our unity, we will embark again on the Northern and Central Luzon Familiarization and Inspection Trip from March 15 to 18 to visit the provinces of Aurora, Quirino, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Pampanga and Bulacan in order for us to know the real situation in these areas when the National Expenditure Program is presented to us by President Duterte in July,” he said.
“More so, we can already inform the concerned executive departments of programs and activities we would want to see in the NEP,” he added.
The President is expected to transmit to Congress his 2019 proposed national budget right after his State of the Nation Address in July. The passage of the annual budget is always included in the priorities of the lower chamber.