18-years ago, at the start of the 10th Congress, I wrote an article for one of the broadsheets on the same topic. At that time, I was assisting in setting up the office of then Sen. Marcelo B. Fernan. Interestingly, my article came out during the organizational meeting of the Ethics Committee, which he was chairing. I was asked to resign because of that article because Sen. Fernan didn’t want to “insult” his colleagues because of what I wrote. I stood by what I wrote and left his office by lunch promising to push for the reforms.
Yesterday, the 16th Congress opened and the same reforms are still needed for the institution to grow root and mature because Congress is the only institution that is accountable to the people. The people elect members of both chambers. The sovereign wields power thru their representatives. That is why the institution should adjust with the times.
Reforms cover institutional, procedural and substantive. Institutional refers to a permanent site for Congress. How can a bicameral body work together when they are roughly 30 kilometers apart? Even now as you read this, the House of Representatives (HOR) is going overtime to have rooms for 290 members ready by 22 July. In the Senate, the new members are still awaiting for their rooms too since the leadership failed to take into account the scenario when the previous majority steps down.
Congress was revived in 1987 and 26 years after, Congress still meets in hotels and restaurants for committee hearings and bicameral meetings. The padlocked Congress opened in 1987 with the Senate occupying the now National Museum. The library then was at the boiler room and as technical staff then, we had to go up several steps to reach Mommy Llave’s domain. Then our offices were spread over the Port area. But we had the best plenary then, what with all the icons of history and mythology carved out of the high ceiling of the Senate.
When I became chief of staff in the House of Representatives in the 1990s, we were like packed sardines in the congressional offices. At that time, there was 6 staff allowed per representative. The plenary was just a plain cavernous hall with the famous triangle shaped domes. Were it not for the huge Philippine flag, the place was just plain. Good thing previous speakers have placed some history on the photo wall in front of the session hall as well at the south side as a gallery.
The 16th Congress should show its political will in building the permanent site of the Legislative Branch. Where to get the money is easy; use the Pork. The total Pork for a single term is a staggering P75.720 Billion or P25.24 Billion a year. This amount is more than enough to build the Legislative Complex. Using the Pork for the permanent site is better since all the members of Congress are representatives of the people and what is more symbolical than the money of the people building the house of the people!
Procedural reforms cover the rules. Steep in tradition, the rules of each chamber are the keys to understanding the legislative maze. Without knowledge of the rules, one cannot understand how a bill becomes a law. The rules can be invoked to delay (filibuster) or speed up (railroad) or logroll legislation. Either way, the public has the right to know what is happening inside Congress, whether in committees, oversights, bicameral or plenary. Procedural also means putting sunlight on the processes and the documents (SALN, among others) that the public can access. In the era of technological growth, it should be a lot easier to connect with members and make them responsive to the needs of their constituents. Procedural also means giving flesh to the campaign promise of “no work, no pay” so attendance must be known to the public. Voting record must also be accessible. The HOR had an electronic voting protocol set up in its chamber two congresses ago, whatever happened to that?
It would be good if legislation were made online especially after a Committee Report is submitted to the Rules Committee. Getting the public involved in rule making online makes real democracy for all. Crowdsourcing can be part of the rules of the chambers. Fiscal discipline should also be part of the rules so that we lessen unfunded mandates or measures passed without budgets. The authorization process must be reviewed and absent authorization by the Appropriations Committee, no measure should pass any chamber. The unfunded mandates stand at Php500 Billion already. This is just plain irresponsibility on the part of Congress to pass laws that can’t be implemented since there are no budgets. And we are not talking of ridding our statute books with dead laws!
Substantive reform refers to the organization of Congress. Before Congress was in session 100 continuous days. In the 8th Congress, they were in session for four days with Fridays for local bills. Today, Congress is just in session for 3 days (Mondays to Wednesdays) and the two remaining working days of the week are theoretically spent for district work. One regular year is equivalent to only 52 session days.
In the 8th Congress, at least in the Senate, it was the policy to liquidate all funds. Today, certification became the norm. That’s why the more committees one has, the more funds at one’s disposal. There are 39 Standing committees in the Senate and 35 oversight committees. There are 58 Standing committees and 11 special committees in HOR.
Before, each Senator had to submit a staffing plan and there were guidelines then. Today, the fund for office staff is given in lump sum and its up to the Senator to determine how many he will hire. Before, the 6 positions per Congressman had to pass the Civil Service. Today, this rule has been scrapped and each Member of the HOR can so choose to appoint without meeting the minimum requirements and the Member can decide to give the salary for the plantilla position or not.
The training of the new members is over and done with. The 16th Congress has the most engaged and prepared freshmen bloc. The elections of officials are done with and the super majorities of the LP are now in place. Can they walk their talk and reform Congress?