, June 16, 2024

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The House Strikes Back

  •   4 min reads
The House Strikes Back
By Joey Salgado

After a ceasefire brief enough for the protagonists to reload, senators and congressmen have reignited their word war over a Senate investigation on a supposedly House-initiated attempt to amend the 1987 Constitution through a people’s initiative. 

Senators are protesting a strongly-worded House resolution, signed by the heads of the lower chamber’s supermajority, that slammed the Senate for breaching inter-chamber courtesy and undermining the integrity of the House and its Speaker Martin Romualdez.

For his part, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri has shrugged off the House leaders’ demand for an end to the Senate probe on the people’s initiative. Ironically, the probe is being pursued by the President’s sister and the Speaker’s cousin, Senator Imee Marcos.

It’s an unwritten norm in politics that civility should prevail even in the most spirited debates among national leaders. But the collision between the two chambers of Congress over the people’s initiative may have reached the breaking point of civil conduct. 

Without high-level intervention, relations between the two chambers may become inhospitable to consensus and the biggest casualty may well be the administration’s charter change agenda.

A More Agile House?

But viewed from the lens of practical politics, there are several takeaways from this continuing political drama.

The strong pushback from the House is surprising, to say the least. Perhaps fed up with being regarded as the “lesser” House owing to their localized constituencies, congressmen have been more agressive in asserting their co-equal status. The House has been quick on defense and offense, not allowing a single negative statement or allegation go unanswered.   

It’s not only in communications where the House has displayed newfound agility. If we are to give credence to Senator Marcos’ claim that the Speaker and several congressmen are the ones behind the initiative, this means that the congressmen can mobilize quickly on the ground as well. By most accounts, the signature drive started in mid-December last year. Several districts were able to meet their targets and turn in the signed petition forms a month after. 

And revelations that the Speaker was “consulted” by proponents, while intended to portray the President’s cousin as a Machiavellian operator, may have the opposite effect. Politically, it amplifies the Speaker’s stature in the political hierarchy. It also creates the perception that he is someone who gets things done, even the previously inconceivable. 

The Romualdez-led House was able to diminish the outsized influence of Vice President Sara Duterte, cracking the myth of inevitable successor to Marcos Jr. They continue to tussle with former president Duterte. Compared to these bruising battles with the Dutertes, gathering signatures for an initiative is coffee break for the congressmen. 

Senator Marcos describes the people’s initiative as a fake initiative. She is questioning the method by which these signatures were obtained, ostensibly through cash and government dole outs, but she is not questioning the authenticity of the signatures. At least, not yet. Even the Dutertes, with their supposedly iron grip on Davao City, were not able to stop the signature drive in their turf.

Dry Run

If the congressmen were able to deliver the signatures in so short a time, they can also deliver the votes. The signature drive could well serve as a dry run for the 2025 mid-terms and the more important presidential exercise in 2028.  

Senator Marcos sees no need for appeasing the congressmen. The Marcos brand alone will guarantee re-election in 2025. For most re-electionists and returning senators, however, it would be wiser, and more practical, to count the congressmen as allies. Command votes can spell the difference in tight races.

Cha Cha at the Senate

The tension between the two chambers overshadowed the start of the Senate’s public hearings on a charter change resolution authored by Zubiri.

For all the intra-chamber drama that ensued in the wake of Zubiri’s resolution, and revelations that he had struck a deal with the President and the Speaker to “take the lead” in the cha-cha deliberations, the move to revise the charter at the Senate is still on. 

This needs to be clear: the senators may passionately oppose people’s initiative and trade barbs with the members of the House, but it cannot hide the reality that they have yielded their decades-long opposition to cha cha to presidential charm. And perhaps, not so subtle pressure from the House. 

House leaders are holding Zubiri to his commitment, supposedly given to the President, that the Senate will approve charter amendments before Congress goes on Lenten break in March. Zubiri has not contradicted this statement. 

Several senators insisted that they will not be rushed, indicating that they intend to proceed at a slower pace, a slow drag, if you will. But they do so with the looming threat of a last-minute fast break on people’s initiative, where the proposition mandates approval of charter amendments with Congress voting as one instead of separately under the Zubiri resolution. Surely, the signature drive didn’t get this far only for the signatures to be discarded, as senators are now demanding. 

Inconceivable? We’ve heard that word before.

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