THE PCIJ recently added another award to its collection, winning the 2007 National Book Award for Journalism for its book “The Rulemakers: How the Wealthy and Well-born Dominate Congress.”
The recognition from the Manila Critics Circle and the National Book Development Board comes at a rather peculiar time though, when Congress is very much under the public lens, particularly over the recent power realignment in the Senate that ousted erstwhile Senate President Manuel Villar, the imminent junking of the fourth impeachment complaint against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo by the administration-dominated House of Representatives, and the renewed efforts by pro-Arroyo congressmen to pursue charter change.
Add to these the revelations made by ousted House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. regarding the apparent Malacañang-instigated backroom dealmaking that attended the botched $329-million national broadband network project awarded to ZTE Corporation, and his confirmation of the alleged P500,000-bribe for him to endorse the weak impeachment complaint filed by lawyer Roel Pulido against Arroyo last year.
If only for these, “Rulemakers” should be relevant reading again.
First published in 2004 but re-issued by Anvil Publishing last year in time for the 2007 elections, “Rulemakers” tells the story of the Philippine Congress based on a well-researched examination of the men and women who compose the legislative body.
Written by three former PCIJ senior writers — Sheila Coronel, Yvonne Chua and Luz Rimban — and The Probe Team’s Booma Cruz, the book, as acknowledged in its preface, comes up with “troubling, but hardly new” findings. Our legislators are a select and exclusive segment of society — richer, older, better connected than the rest of us, and belong to families whose members have held public office for two or more generations. In short, they are hardly representative of the citizens they are supposed to represent.
Yet these are facts, by and large ignored, that help explain why our legislators more often behave the way they do, with the public’s interest figuring the least — if at all, token at best — in their priorities. “Rulemakers” is replete with examples of how they have used their powers — to make laws, to conduct legislative inquiries, to examine the national budget, and to vet presidential appointments — to get benefits not only for themselves but for their allies and family members.
Of late, impeachment proceedings have also apparently joined the list of sources from which congressmen could further enrich themselves. Last year, scandal broke out over “cash gifts” amounting to P500,000 each allegedly given to local officials and congressmen called to a meeting in Malacañang on October 11, 2007. This was in the midst of another impeachment complaint, which has become an annual affair for Arroyo since 2005.
What de Venecia told the House justice committee yesterday about the bribery is indeed “old news,” as his pro-Arroyo colleagues have been wont to dismiss. Over a year ago, Governors Ed Panlilio (Pampanga) and Joselito Mendoza (Bulacan), and Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr. already disclosed to the public that they either received or were offered the “cash gifts” themselves.
But the “gift-giving” is also old news in the sense that, as one might recall, the junking of the first impeachment case against Arroyo had patronage written all over it, attended as it was by reports of fund releases to congressmen, appointments of members of their families and relatives to government positions, promises of projects and other favors.
One such glaring instance involved Arroyo’s issuance of P15 million in postdated checks from the President’s Social Fund to support the scholarship program of then Zambales Rep. Antonio Magsaysay Diaz. At the time, the House justice committee was still tackling the impeachment complaint. Diaz eventually voted to junk the complaint.
Yet none seems probably more blatant in our legislators’ desire to further entrench themselves in power than the vigorous push for amendments to the 1987 Constitution, one that is more than likely to introduce term extension for the current beleaguered and discredited dispensation. No less than Arroyo’s congressman son, Juan Miguel ‘Mikey’ Arroyo, is in the thick of things to solicit signatures for a resolution calling for the convening of Congress into a constituent assembly to discuss charter change.
At this stage, it is no longer a question of whether the needed number of signatures — a three-fourths majority — will be reached or not. After all, at the House, so much more than the Senate, the organizing principle of legislative life is the struggle for spoils. So long as there is something that legislators can wangle for themselves, it’s more or less assuredly in the bag (pun intended). And Malacañang, as the main dispenser of patronage, knows this only too well.
To further illustrate, here’s an excerpt from Rulemakers on “Dividing the Spoils”:
The old way of doing things remains very strong in Congress. For the longest time, the tradition of spoils, of horsetrading and dealmaking, has disabled the legislature and made it an effective tool for delivering patronage but a disaster in terms of catalyzing reforms and bringing about development.
This is not to say that the legislature is incapable of enacting reformist laws. In the past, progressive legislation was made possible because there was a strong constituency outside Congress agitating for change and a committed leadership within the body pushed for the reforms. Strong presidents with a clear legislative agenda and able to exercise initiative in the lawmaking also made a difference.
For the most part, however, lawmaking has been ad hoc and incoherent. The horizons of legislators are narrow, their interests, short-term, and their attention spans, even shorter. The struggle for spoils remains the organizing principle in Congress, the reason, it would seem, for its existence.
Moreover, Congress is hostage to the president who is the source of many of the perks of power. In a system that is built around patronage, the president is the supreme patron. Malacañang itself is the main source of laws. In the post-Marcos era, 40 to 60 percent of the approved legislation originated from the presidential palace. Presidents have used their roles as custodian of the spoils to win the cooperation of Congress, which is pulled in so many directions that is has become extremely difficult for either the president or the legislative leadership to pull it togetehr as a cohesive body.
The conflicting demands from various social sectors — including big business, the military, political families, organized religion, and social movements — are reflected in the post-Marcos Congress, which has become more factionalized and differentiated than its predecessor in the postwar era. In the end, the one thing most lawmakers have in common is a desire for their share of the patronage pie.
“Most legislators see public service as auxiliary to power consolidation,” says a second-generation representative. “It’s hard to say that the institution ot that the majority in the institution are genuinely caring about where this country is headed. For the most part, it is short-term and myopic.”