Congress won’t end reign of political dynasties

Congress won’t end reign of political dynasties
By Tony Bergonia
Philippine Daily Inquirer

(First of four parts)

MANILA, Philippines—Congress’ refusal to pass an anti-dynasty law could just be one more proof that, quoting Henry Kissinger, “power is an aphrodisiac,” says former Sen. Rene Saguisag.

No anti-dynasty bill ever reached the floor of either chamber of Congress for voting.

“Your search yielded no result,” went the reply on the House website when a search on the subject of political dynasties was made.

It might as well be the epitaph on the tomb of the anti-dynasty measure.

“Delicadeza,” Saguisag says, is the single most important ingredient lacking in the continuing process to stop political dynasties, “but it is long dead and gone.”

The 1987 Constitution left no room for interpretation in Article II, Section 26: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties …”

However, it left the task of defining dynasties and putting flesh into the prohibition to Congress, one institution teeming with legislators who are either patriarchs or products of clans or families that maintain fiefdoms in regions, provinces, towns or cities.

“The 1987 Constitution made it impossible to serve long so families just spread the bounty,” Saguisag says.

When the late President Corazon Aquino restored Congress and its two chambers, the task of writing a law that would enforce the constitutional ban on dynasties took the life span of a Stage-4 cancer patient.

“Resistance was natural,” Saguisag recalls those days at the Senate when he and other supporters of measures to implement the anti-dynasty provision argued their case before colleagues, who had other priorities than to help kill their own emerging dynasties.

Subtle, strong opposition

The attempt to pass a law didn’t go very far, he says. Opposition was “subtle but strong.”

Saguisag’s episode in public service could be a good example of how power should be handled—reject it outright or simply succumb to it. Except in two instances at the prodding of Ms Aquino, he has made the first choice.

“I don’t know, but it was easy for me (to reject power),” Saguisag says.

One instance, when he had to give in was on Feb. 25, 1986, “when at dusk, I was asked to serve (by Aquino).”

“’Ne (his term of endearment to Ms Aquino), you’ll continue to be my spokesman,” Saguisag recalls Aquino as telling him that day. “I was speechless, looking down at my shoes a long, long time.”

When he tried to resist, Saguisag says, “I got an earful, along with Joker (Arroyo).”

“You were among those who pushed me to run. Now you won’t even help me,” Saguisag recalls Ms Aquino telling him and Joker. “I was an accidental public servant privileged to serve a providential president.”

The temptation, however, didn’t stop there. Soon after agreeing to help Ms Aquino during the transition period, Saguisag recalls, a bigger offer came his way.

“In January 1987, I was given a signed Supreme Court appointment,” Saguisag says in written replies to questions e-mailed to him by the Inquirer. “I said no to it.”

In his foray into public life, Saguisag made himself noticeably scarce only twice—when he ended his term as senator and faded into the background, and when an accident claimed the life of his wife, Dulce, and wounded him for life.

Finding time to reply in writing [he begged off from a face-to-face or phone interview] to the Inquirer request, Saguisag recalls his brushes with power as temptation.

“My wife and I said no to various offers,” he says. “Offered one Cabinet position, she said to me ‘argument over.’”

Speakership fight

Saguisag’s ability to resist power is easy as the struggle to enable the constitutional ban on dynasties is tough.

Journals of the House of Representatives, which keep records of daily sessions, are replete with this passage on anti-dynasty bills: “To the committee on suffrage and electoral reforms.” It simply meant put it on the back burner.

One instance when the dynasty issue became big at the House, however, was during the 2007 speakership fight between Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr. of Pangasinan and Rep. Pablo Garcia Sr. of Cebu.

Struggling to keep his hold on the top House post, De Venecia raised the dynasty issue against the Garcias.

On Aug. 13, 2007, at the height of the fight, De Venecia’s ally, Rep. Arthur Defensor, filed House Bill No. 783, “Anti-Political Dynasty Act of 2007,” that would outlaw “alarming situations where the father is the governor, the mother is the congresswoman, while the son is the mayor.”

A House press release on Aug. 13, 2007, quotes Defensor as saying that political dynasties are “anathema to our democratic life and characteristic of the patronage system of politics that has been a hindrance to our development.”

Defensor’s bill, however, won’t bar relatives from handing power over like they do pieces of property in inheritance proceedings. It isn’t as ugly as “unpleasant situations” of several relatives occupying government positions all at the same time, Defensor was quoted as saying. “This bill is different.”

De Venecia, another House press release says, “deserves to be reelected to a fifth term (as Speaker) after showing unflinching support for the anti-dynasty bill.”

Nothing was heard of again of the anti-dynasty bill after De Venecia won. The journal passage continued: “To the committee on suffrage and electoral reforms.”

The bill went nowhere even if it, according to Defensor himself, meant to exempt from the dynasty prohibition officials holding positions “where decision-making is made through deliberations and consensus,” like seats in Congress.

Level of priority

Another bill, this time filed by Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo, was consolidated with Defensor’s work.

When he was Senate President, now presidential candidate Manuel Villar was asked what level of priority he was giving the anti-dynasty measure.

“We can prioritize it depending on our colleagues,” Villar says at a November 2006 press conference with reporters at the Senate.

“But we all know that we’re running out of time,” he says.

“What we are giving priority to now are the ones that already passed the committees. There’s still hope for those that haven’t passed the committees. But, of course, they’re not top priority because it’s just normal for us, it’s just logical for us to act first on those that are already on the floor.”

Sen. Francis Escudero, chair of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws, says in a press conference three years later that his committee has reported out an anti-dynasty bill filed by Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

“But as one of those who would be affected by the bill,” he says in a press conference in June 2009, “I inhibited myself although I first reported it out.” Escudero’s father is currently a congressman in Sorsogon.

The younger Escudero says Congress really has no choice but to pass an anti-dynasty law because it was clear in the 1987 Constitution.

Conflict of interest

“The problem,” he says, “is for each senator and congressman to look closely at themselves in the mirror and ask if they have conflict of interest.”

“Because if they do,” Escudero continues, “they should inhibit themselves and not participate in deliberations on this bill to leave those who do not have conflict of interest in relation to the anti-dynasty bill.”

In a transcript of that press conference, a reporter asks Escudero how many legislators he believed would be left if everyone with conflict of interest on the anti-dynasty issue inhibited themselves.

“No matter how many are left, the configuration and definition of a quorum could be adjusted to pass this bill,” he replies.

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.