A day in Congress

The author is coordinator and member of the Management Collective of Action for Economic Reforms.

A visit to the Congress of the Philippines – whatever the purpose – is both educational and amusing.

At the session hall, one observes that the activities are dull. Rep.
Satur Ocampo is delivering a privileged speech, lambasting the
administration’s accommodation of US troops in the country. Mr. Ocampo
is cool in delivering his statement, but the message is hot.
Unfortunately, only a handful of fellow legislators are listening. Many
of the legislators are outside the hall, and they return to the session
hall only when the roll call is made. For those in the hall, they seem
bored, and this boredom is infectious.

Congress is not at all boring, though. Tired of the deliberations
occurring at the session hall? Then try doing something different.
Visit the museum, for example, which is off the beaten track. Those who
stumble onto the museum are students and excursionists compelled by
their schools and offices to have a field trip in Congress. A short
tour of the museum may leave the visitor jaded, but one’s curiosity is
aroused by some mementos.

For example, apart from being a historical document, the first House
bill filed in the 1st Congress of the Philippines provides amusement.
House Bill No. 1 of the 1st Congress is titled: “An Act Providing for
the execration of Japan and the Japanese, and for other purposes.”
Miguel Tolentino, congressman from the first district of Batangas,
filed this bill on March 31, 1945. In his introduction, Representative
Tolentino wrote: “The main purpose of the bill is to perpetuate a
profound hatred for Japan and everything Japanese in this country. This
is the least that the Filipino people can do in just and due
retaliation for the horrible atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese
during their savage and inhuman rule over the Philippines.”

The politically correct among us will ridicule this bill. But the bill
was perfectly understandable in its historical context. In the wake of
the brutality and aggression of Japanese fascism in the Philippines,
Mr. Tolentino’s bill was an expression of many Filipinos’ sentiments at
the time. Mr. Tolentino – may he rest in peace – can thus be forgiven
for the vulgar language.

In this age, the bills filed in Congress no longer contain vulgar or
obscene language. But a number of bills are still amusing. To be blunt,
one can always find bills that are silly and comical. Go to the
archives and randomly pick the Order of Business for a particular
session. There, one finds the list of bills on first reading that will
be referred to the congressional committees.

Take House Bill No. 5056 authored by Representative Salapuddin titled:
“An Act Establishing a Special Economic Zone and Free Port in the
entire province of Basilan, providing funds therefore and for other
purposes.” Mr. Salapuddin assumes that Basilan has many advantages
attractive to investors (including peace and order?), comparable to
Subic, to make it the next growth center of the Philippines.

Mr. Salapuddin seems to be a prolific drafter of congressional bills.
His House Bill No. 5066 is entitled: “An Act Increasing the Privilege
Discounts of Senior Citizens from Twenty Percent (20%) to Forty Percent
(40%) amending for the purpose Sec. 4 of Republic Act No. 7432, and for
other purposes.” Mr. Salapuddin must go back to school and take a
remedial course in basic economics. He has forgotten that there is no
such thing as a free lunch – as the saying goes. But perhaps this is
because he has been accustomed to having free lunches, given the many
privileges accorded a congressman, that he thinks that such privilege
can be given to the citizenry. Very generous of him.

We can nevertheless expect Congress to eventually thrash these bills.
What can really deceive are bills that seem to make sense (and are
morally acceptable) but in fact will only aggravate the problems that
they intend to solve. An example is House Bill No. 5061, authored by
Representative Barbers, entitled: “An Act Increasing the Penalties for
Jueteng and other Illegal Numbers Games, amending for the purpose
Presidential Decree No. 1962, and for other purposes.” The bill
presumes that higher penalties will discourage jueteng.

On the contrary, higher penalties will only result in increasing the
cost of bribe and “protection.” So long as the jueteng lords are in
connivance with politicians, the courts and the police, jueteng will
prosper. (As Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has said, we need a “strong
republic.”) Jueteng is alive and kicking, despite the scandal and
political fallout it triggered that toppled Joseph Estrada from the
presidency.

Even from a legislative viewpoint, it would be far better to legalize
jueteng. But such type of “heretical” bill is not likely to gain
ground. Besides, the arguments for legalization are sophisticated and
even technical, requiring the bill sponsor to be knowledgeable and have
expertise. In a word, the typical legislator, even the honest one, has
no incentive to push this kind of bill.

Legislators must be knowledgeable and fully informed to perform their
main function of making and approving laws. This unfortunately is a
cliche; moreover, it is not a characteristic of Philippine legislators.

Many scholars have argued that the value of information, knowledge and
expertise in Congress is significantly affected by institutional
arrangements. In the Philippine context, the conditions do not
encourage legislators to value information and specialization.

First of all, the voters do not have sufficient information about what
their representatives are doing in Congress. The legislators therefore
can act silly and get away with poor performance, aware that their
constituents do not know what they are doing.

The media institutions are also at fault, for they are deficient in
informing the public about the substantive and strategic issues facing
Congress.

The political culture and the established rules in Congress do not
create the incentive either for the congressmen to value information
and expertise. The appointment of chair of committees is principally
determined not by one’s competence or expertise but by favoritism,
patronage and horse-trading. There are also too many committees (and
too many meetings), some of them redundant, making it virtually
impossible for legislators to keep track of the major issues and
developments. Further, the budget for research and policy analysis is
limited. Worse, congressmen are not even required to allocate office
funds for research. (Even the brilliant Joker Arroyo, as congressman
and senator, does not maintain a technical staff). The so-called think
tank of the Lower House often serves as a political tool of the Speaker.

But arguably the greatest obstacle to developing congressional
expertise is that the Congress is swayed by vested interests.
Representatives are expected to respond to their constituents’ need and
interests. But the constituency is an amorphous group made up of
individual citizens who, by themselves, cannot really exert pressure on
their representatives. More precisely, legislators are captured by the
elite who have the organization and the resources to mount a successful
lobby.

Key legislation is influenced, if not shaped, by the political lobby
and the “market” where rules can be bought to favor a particularistic
group. Congress members’ positions or views are driven by the lobby
interests and not by any objective or technical analysis of a
particular issue. A “captured” legislator will not waste time and money
seeking information that does not serve his or his clients’ personal
interest. The information or technical analysis that he will search for
is one that will fit his bias or his client’s preference.

We have cited a few examples of institutional arrangements that degrade
the substance of the legislative work in Congress. A reshaping of the
institutional and governance arrangements has to happen to make
Congress and its members appreciate the role of information and
expertise in their work.

Until then, we must make do with a Congress whose apparent idea of
legislation involves amusing and entertaining the people – at a great
cost at that.

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