Thursday, June 05, 2008

The problem called Quorum

The House of Representatives is currently laboring to pass the bill extending the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law which is set to expire this month. The bill has been certified urgent by the President, which should be taken as a marching order to her allies in the Legislature to enact the measure.

In fact, aside from the certification which is an official act, more personal efforts were taken to ensure the cooperation of congressmen. Last Tuesday, the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office individually reminded congressmen to attend sessions and stay until its passage. Likewise, the Office of Speaker Prospero Nograles sent text messages to the Members of the House, urging them to be present during session and not leave until debates are concluded and a vote is taken.

It is not the first time that such persuasion was used on congressmen. The Anti-Terror Bill, the R-VAT Bill, and many others were passed with the same kind of prodding from the Office of the President and the Office of the Speaker of the House. While other bills languish in suspended animation, there bills which enjoy the active support of the leadership, to which members of the majority are all too willing to accommodate.

But of course, the passage of a bill depends on the presence of a quorum, that magic number that allows the House of Representatives to conduct business. The rule is No Quorum, No Session.

In the leadership change effected several months ago, one of the major criticisms against the former leadership was the persistent problem of attendance during sessions. Somehow, the Speaker of the House was made accountable for the failure of congressmen to attend sessions. It became a battlecry for those calling for change in the House leadership.

So with the President's certification of the bill and the leadership change still fresh in the House, it was expected that the CARP extension bill would not encounter difficulties in passing. Although debates have been going on for almost three weeks owing to some lengthy interpellations by a few congressmen, it seemed that yesterday was going to be the last day for debates. There were several congressmen lined up to ask questions, including myself, but the intention was to go overtime if needed, just so that the bill would come to a vote.

We have also done that many times, conducting marathon sessions stretching one day to the next, just to give everyone an opportunity to ask questions and yet have the bill voted on as soon as possible.

At first it seemed that the congressmen were going to maintain the pace and close the deliberation of the bill and finally vote. But as the night wore on and the debates became longer, the numbers began thinning. At around 8:00 PM, one congressman from the administration coalition suddenly stood up and questioned the quorum.

It was obvious then that there were not enough numbers of congressmen in session. The proceedings were suspended and the quorum bell rang, calling all congressmen to proceed to the hall. Proponents of the bill tried to convince the member who questioned the quorum to reconsider his position. But he stood firm, and eventually the session had to be adjourned.

Hundreds of farmers and other interest groups were there to witness the workings of Congress. They were hoping that the House would pass the bill, which would benefit them and other farmers all over the country. These past few weeks, they had even resorted to various tactics and gimmicks to convince congressmen to maintain quorum and vote on the bill. One time, they handed out sachets of 3 in 1 coffee, with a note that said “Walang Tulugan! Ipasa ang CARP Extension!”

But yesterday, that would not be so. The House of Representatives bowed to the congressional illness known as Lack of Quorum.

I wondered why this was so. The head of the administration coalition already signified her desire to have the bill passed. Why weren't her allies in congress accommodating this desire?

The reformists already had achieved change in the House, on a platform of reforming the House and improving attendance. Why are they putting the Speaker that they put into the leadership of the House in an embarrassing situation? It appears that the same headaches that inflicted the former Speaker is now hounding the present Speaker.

What is evident here is that reforming the House of Representatives does not rely on who the Speaker is, but more on the sincere desire of the entire membership of the House to reform themselves and the political will to act on those desires. The House of Representatives is a collegial body composed of 238 members, each with equal standing. The Speaker is the primus inter pares, the First Among Equals, meaning that while he heads the chamber, he really does not enjoy command over every congressman. Ultimately, each congressman is responsible for himself and at the same time, the institution where he belongs.

Unless each member reforms himself/herself, there will never be reform in the institution.

Another thing that is evident is that while there exists a political party system where the party stand is expected to be upheld by its members, when the individual interests come into play, party interests or even national interests take the backseat. There are reports that the delay in the passage of the bill is due to the protection of personal interests by certain personalities.

Perhaps that's a reality of Philippine politics. The question now is, do we simply accept it or do we change it?

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