MANILA, Philippines – 2016 was a year of fighting congressmen – fighting with outsiders, fighting among themselves.
In the first half of the year – at the tailend of the 16th Congress – lawmakers fought to override a veto of then president Benigno Aquino III, but failed. Congressmen battled over the seats in their respective districts, their cases reaching the highest court in the land. And a candidate endured being mocked on the campaign trail before becoming the country's first transgender to enter Congress.
Under the current Congress, the Batasang Pambansa also became a battleground for witnesses who accused Senator Leila de Lima of being behind the proliferation of drugs inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP).
Here are the moments that defined the House of Representatives in 2016:
1. The fight for the seat of Marinduque
In the 2013 congressional race, Regina Ongsiako Reyes beat her opponent Lord Allan Jay Velasco for Marinduque representative with a lead of 4,000 votes. The 16th Congress swore Reyes in despite the Commission on Elections (Comelec) disqualifying her from the race on the grounds that she was a naturalized American citizen.
Reyes brought the case before the Supreme Court (SC), which upheld her disqualification. She alleged that the High Court voted in Velasco’s favor because his father, Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco, supposedly influenced his colleagues. The elder Velasco, however, had inhibited himself from the case.
The court battle went on for two years, with Velasco urging the SC to compel the House of Representatives to install him as the rightful congressman. All the while, the House leadership, led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, a party mate of Reyes, allowed her to continue serving as congresswoman. They both belonged to the ruling Liberal Party. (READ: Poll protests: Is the Supreme Court clipping HRET's powers?)
By the last week of January 2016, however, both the SC and the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal upheld the earlier rulings that effectively disqualified Reyes.
Velasco took his oath of office on February 1, two days before Congress adjourned session for the 2016 campaign period.
2. One last try to hike SSS pension
Two million retirees were looking forward to the passage of the bill seeking a P2,000 across-the-board pension increase for Social Security System (SSS) members. And so when then president Benigno Aquino III vetoed House Bill 5842 due to “dire financial consequences,” many senior citizens were dismayed.
On the last day of the 16th Congress on June 6, principal bill author and then Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares tried to convince other lawmakers to override Aquino’s veto.
The 1987 Constitution gives Congress the power to override a presidential veto with a 2/3 vote in the House and in the Senate.
Colmenares said congressmen should take the “historic chance” to reconsider HB 5842 to help alleviate the plight of senior citizens. He was backed by then Muntinlupa representative Rodolfo Biazon, Manila City 5th District Representative Amado Bagatsing, and Buhay Representative Lito Atienza.
But both Majority Floor Leader Neptali Gonzales II and Ilocos Norte 1st District Representative Rodolfo Fariñas reminded them that the Senate at the time had adjourned and could not participate in the proceedings anymore.
HB 5842 was not passed.
3. Last session day drama
Talk about going out with a bang.
On June 6, Harlin Abayon failed to reclaim his position as Northern Samar 1st district representative despite the Supreme Court recognizing him as the duly-elected congressman in the 2013 elections.
The High Court had reversed the ruling of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal that favored Raul Daza, who protested Abayon’s victory in 2013 for alleged electoral fraud in some clustered precincts.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr said the House leadership would reinstate Abayon as congressman once they received a copy of the Supreme Court decision. The House leadership maintained that it still did not have a copy of the ruling during the last session day of the 16th Congress.
After Abayon’s manifestation on the floor, Isabela 4th District Representative Giorgidi Aggabao ordered the House of Representatives sergeant-at-arms to escort Abayon out of the plenary hall.
Abayon first raised his reinstatement as congressman during the proclamation of then President-elect Rodrigo Duterte and then Vice President-elect Leni Robredo on May 30.
4. Geraldine Roman: The first transgender congresswoman
Geraldine Roman, scion of a political clan in the first district of Bataan, made history during the 2016 polls after becoming the first transgender to be elected to the House of Representatives.
She emerged victorious despite being mocked and abused on the campaign trail in a predominantly Catholic country.
"My life has not been a secret. I grew up here. People know me. [Gender] only becomes an issue when you try to keep it a secret. It's nothing bad. I never hurt anyone in the process. I'm so happy, so why should I be ashamed?” said Roman during the campaign period.
Roman speaks 3 European languages, has two master’s degrees, and worked in Spain as senior editor of the Spanish News Agency. She returned to the country 4 years ago to take care of her father, who passed away in the same year due to multiple organ failure.
Roman is now one of the more popular lawmakers in the 17th Congress, actively campaigning for the passage of the Anti Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Discrimination Act under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. The House women and gender equality committee recently approved the bill, which is now up for second reading at the plenary.
5. The formation of the supermajority
With the lack of a real political party system in the Philippines, it was not surprising that lawmakers started jumping ship to Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) after President Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential race.
Lawmakers who did not switch parties opted for their respective political parties to sign coalition agreements with PDP-Laban. Now, 267 out of the 293 congressmen are all allied with Duterte, with members belonging to PDP-Laban, Liberal Party (LP), Nacionalista Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition, National Unity Party, Lakas-CMD, and 37 party-list representatives.
6. Drama over the minority chair
Two minority blocs emerged at the House of Representatives after Quezon 3rd District Representative Danilo Suarez was elected minority leader.
There are 18 lawmakers belonging to the minority bloc led by Suarez who are duly recognized by the House leadership. Seven congressmen who protested Suarez’ win decided to stick to the independent minority bloc and called themselves the “Magnificent 7.”
Suarez’ victory was a controversial one, after his longtime rival and Magnificent 7 member, Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman, warned that a minority bloc helmed by Suarez would be “subservient” to the supermajority.
For members of the Magnificent 7, Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr is the rightful minority leader because he had gotten more votes than Suarez when the two lawmakers vied for the speakership, which Davao del Norte 1st District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez won with 251 votes.
Baguilat voted for himself, getting 8 votes. Suarez, who voted for Alvarez, got only 7 votes. Twenty lawmakers abstained. Traditionally, the runner-up for speaker becomes House minority leader.
But House Majority Floor Leader Rodolfo Fariñas argued that House rules mandate that the minority bloc chooses its leader in separate elections, which Suarez won. (READ: House supermajority rejects Baguilat's claim as minority leader)
The Magnificent 7 continues to slam Suarez, saying he cannot be a true minority leader when he is co-author of several of the administration’s pet bills, including the death penalty measure.
Lagman’s group already challenged Suarez’ minority leadership before the Supreme Court, but both Alvarez and Fariñas believe the case will not prosper.
7. 13 deputy speakers to prepare for federalism
For the first time, the leadership of the House named a total of 13 deputy speakers in anticipation of the country's shift to federalism.
Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas said these deputies would be tasked to determine the needs of a certain federal state assigned to them should the Philippines amend the 1987 Constitution.
Under federalism, the country will be divided into autonomous states that will be principally responsible for their own laws, finances, development, industries, infrastructure, and culture. The national government will only take care of matters with nationwide bearing.
8. 8-day marathon for the proposed 2017 budget
“More so, Mr Speaker and honorable colleagues, for the first time in history, in all of the 8 days, the roll was called every morning during session and we have quorum every time the roll was called. The calling of members in the morning is unprecedented,” said Fariñas.
Normally, debates on the floor take longer, with lawmakers forced to stay at the Batasang Pambansa until the wee hours on the day the proposed budget for the year is to be approved on second reading.
The proposed budget for 2017 was passed by the House of Representatives on 3rd and final reading on October 19. The bill went through the same process at the Senate, with senators approving the bill on November 28.
9. Barbers vs Pichay
It started with a near-fist fight, and ended in an exchange of ethics complaints.
Surigao del Norte 2nd District Representative Robert Ace Barbers and Surigao del Sur 1st District Representative Prospero Pichay Jr had a heated exchange while discussing charter change during the meeting of the House constitutional amendments panel on October 12.
When the committee took a temporary break, Barbers walked toward Pichay. The two congressmen were then heard exchanging expletives and tried pushing each other. But their colleagues were able to break up the fight between Barbers and Pichay.
After the confrontation, Barbers apologized to the public but refused to say sorry to Pichay.
Barbers retaliated by attacking Pichay in a privilege speech on November 14, accusing Pichay of corporate identity and mineral theft, as well as graft, due to the alleged illegal mining activities of the latter’s Claver Mineral Development Corporation. The next day, Barbers filed his own ethics complaint against Pichay.
The two lawmakers are longtime rivals. In 2005, Pichay wanted to kick out Barbers from their party, the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats of then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for backing the impeachment complaint against Arroyo.
10. Bilibid drugs and De Lima’s love affair
Fifty-four hours, 5 hearings, 23 witnesses, and an embattled senator. The House justice committee’s probe into the narcotics trade at the New Bilibid Prison had the whole nation watching.
At the center of all the drama was Senator Leila de Lima, former justice secretary accused of using millions of drug money to fund her 2016 senatorial bid. (READ: House report on Bilibid drugs: ‘Sufficient evidence point to De Lima’)
Among her alleged bagmen were her former security aides and lovers Joenel Sanchez and Ronnie Dayan, who both denied collecting cash from prison drug lords on behalf of their ex-boss.
The investigation “in aid of legislation” has been tagged by critics as a way of slut-shaming De Lima. An alleged sex video between De Lima and Dayan was originally considered to be screened during the hearing, but after the committee and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II were criticized by netizens, the video was taken off the list of evidence.
When Dayan, who went in hiding in August, was finally nabbed by the police, he testified before congressmen and said it was De Lima who advised him to snub the hearing on October 6. He also admitted to collecting money for De Lima from Eastern Visayas drug lord Kerwin Espinosa. (READ: Dayan, Espinosa: Who's telling truth on drug money for De Lima?)
Senators and netizens believe the congressmen went out of line, but the lawmakers reasoned their questions were necessary to test Dayan’s credibility as a witness.
They argued De Lima violated Article 150 of the Revised Penal Code when she advised Dayan to snub the House hearing. (READ: Alvarez: De Lima ‘disrespected' the House)
De Lima maintained the complaints filed against her were an attempt by the House leaders “to save face after the House inquiry on the Bilibid drug trade was exposed to be all of a farce.” – Rappler.com