The legislature and Philippine policy making

Posted: April 7, 2010 in Legislatures, Philippine politics, Political institutions

Legislative power, or the power to make laws, is vested in the bicameral Congress consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives.  However, under the Initiative and Referendum Act (Republic Act No. 6735), the electorate can directly propose, amend, or repeal laws or any provision thereof and propose amendments to the Constitution.  To propose a constitutional amendment through a so-called people’s initiative, the petition must be supported by at least 12% of all registered voters nationwide and by at least 3% of all registered voters in each of all the congressional districts in the country.

The Senate is composed of twenty four (24) members elected by the entire nation constituted as an electoral district.  A senator serves a six-year term and cannot serve for more than 12 consecutive years (or two consecutive terms).  During an election (held every three years), only 12 senators will be elected from among those running for re-election and fresh candidates.  At mid-term, a senator can stand for a higher post (the presidency or the vice presidency) and returns to the Senate to serve the unexpired portion of his term if he does not win.

Unless otherwise provided by law, the membership of the House of Representatives should not be more than 250, consisting of elected representatives of legislative districts (with each district representing 250,000 voters) and members elected through the party-list system, as provided in the Party List Act (Republic Act No. 7491).  Party list representatives should constitute 20% of the total House membership.  Party-list representatives are elected on a nation-wide basis provided their parties garner at least 2% of all votes cast for party-list representatives.

However, each party-list group is allowed only a maximum of three representatives.  This apparently nonsensical provision was provided for by the regular legislators to limit the number of party list legislators and limit the latter’s political clout.  This provision has forced several party list groups to organize themselves into smaller and more numerous groups to circumvent the three-representative limit.  In addition, the slots for party-list representatives had never been filled up since 1998 because of the 2% threshold and the three-representative limit for each party-list group.   However, the Supreme Court revised the formula for apportioning party list representatives in late 2009 allowing for an increase in PL representation, to include Gen. (ret.) Jovito Palparan, who is supposed to represent the marginalized group of security guards, para-military auxiliaries and other anti-communists.

The Senate is headed by the senate president while the House of Representatives is headed by the speaker of the house.  Both are elected by a majority vote of all the members of their respective chambers.  The senate president is assisted by the senate president pro tempore while the speaker of the house is assisted by three deputy speakers (one each for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao—the country’s major island groups).  While there are deputy speakers for each of the major island groups, this does not suggest that representatives from these geographic regions actually form voting blocks.

In truth, there are no relatively-stable geographically-based voting blocks in the HOR that take strategic positions on policy issues.  In recent years, an industry- and geographically-based bloc, the Northern Alliance, composed of representatives of tobacco leaf growing provinces in Northern Luzon, had a united stance on the taxation of cigars and cigarettes to favor a major business corporation (which was the largest buyer of locally-produced tobacco leaf).  Members of both legislative chambers may elect such other officers as they deem necessary.  Each chamber has the power to determine the rules governing their respective proceedings and internal organization.

Under the Constitution, the Senate President is third in line of succession, after the President and the Vice President.

Under the Rules of the Senate, the Senate President is the chief executive of the Senate and has the following duties and powers: (a) to preside over the sessions of the Senate on the days and at the hours designated by it; to call the Senate to order and, if there is a quorum, to order the reading of the Journal of the preceding session and, after the Senate shall have acted upon it, to dispose of the matters appearing in the Order of Business in accordance with the Rules; (b) to decide all points of order;  (c) to sign all measures, memorials, joint and concurrent resolutions; issue warrants, orders of arrest, subpoena and subpoena duces tecum[1];  (d) to see to it that all resolutions of the Senate are complied with;  (e) to have general control over the session hall, the antechambers, corridors and offices of the Senate;  (f) to maintain order in the session hall, the antechambers, corridors and in the offices of the Senate, and whenever there is disorder, to take appropriate measures to quell it; (g) to designate an Acting Sergeant-at-Arms, if the Sergeant-at-Arms resigns, is replaced or becomes incapacitated;  (h) to appoint the subordinate personnel of the Senate in conformity with the provisions of the General Appropriations Act; (i) to dismiss any employee for cause, which dismissal in the case of permanent and classified employees shall be in conformity with the Civil Service Law; and (j) to diminish or increase the number of authorized personnel by consolidating or separating positions or items whenever the General Appropriations Act so authorizes and the total amount of salaries or allocations does not exceed the amount earmarked therein.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is the fourth highest official in the Philippine government. He presides over the sessions of the HOR;  decides on all questions of order, subject to appeal by any member; signs all acts, resolutions, memorials, writs, warrants and subpoenas issued by or upon order of the House; appoints, suspends, dismisses or disciplines House personnel; and exercise administrative functions. The Speaker is elected by a majority vote of all the Members at the commencement of each Congress.  He appoints the Chair of the Committee on Accounts, the unit tasked to allocate the budget of the HOR.

To the extent that both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House are heads of their respective legislative chambers, they are significant players in the policymaking powers.  In addition to their formal powers, informal unwritten rules and norms delineate their roles in the policymaking process.  Both clearly have agenda-setting powers within their respective chambers.

However, the difference in the composition of the legislative chambers and how they were elected spell the difference between the informal powers of the Speaker and the Senate President.

Since all Senators are elected by a national constituency, each Senator regards himself as an equal of the Senate President.  In addition, the small number of Senators (24) makes it easier to unseat a Senate President than the House Speaker who presides over a larger legislative body.  In the Senate, the norm has been to equalize the pork barrel allocations of each Senator.

In contrast, the House Speaker has greater power relative to the Senate President in deciding the pork barrel allocations of individual legislators and can use this same power to impose his policy preferences over his colleagues.

The very small size of the Senate also affects policymaking in many other ways.  For one, it is relatively easy for a single senator to hold hostage a legislative measure if he is strongly against it.  On the other hand, the small size of the Senate also facilitates horse trading or log-rolling.  Usually, a senator identifies a pet bill (which is usually not controversial) to colleagues in private caucuses.  The passage of this pet bill is oftentimes in exchange of the proponent’s support for the pet bills of colleagues.

Thus, it is relatively easy to pass a measure in the Senate but most difficult to pass a controversial bill since a single senator can be a veto player.  How the senators are elected also affect their relations with each other and policymaking as a consequence.  While a dozen senatorial candidates usually run under a coalition ticket, each of them are still competitors for the same post since only the top 12 candidates with the most number of votes get to be elected as senators.  This situation has often led to junking (of ticket-mates) and personal hostilities and undermines whatever party- or coalition cohesion senators should have.  In many instances, these personal hostilities surface during legislative deliberations such that a particular measure is opposed by the political enemies of the bill’s sponsor.

Given the great number of standing and special committees, each senator heads at least two-three committees and is a member of many other committees.  It is physically impossible for him to attend all committee meetings and hearings and participate in all committee activities.  While previous rules of the Senate allow legislative technical staff to speak during committee meetings/hearings on behalf of their principals, this practice has been disallowed by current Senate rules.  What the staff can do is to prepare minutes of the committee meeting for the senator’s perusal.  Thus, it is only during floor deliberations where most senators get to really examine and appreciate an entire legislative proposal.

The larger House of Representatives offer a contrasting picture.  The large membership of the House accentuates the political clout of the Speaker, his deputies, and the chairpersons of key committees such as Rules and Appropriations and reduces the political weight of an average member.  In the HOR, junior representatives (such as first-termers) usually defer to veterans who often assume committee chairmanships or higher House positions.

All proposed laws undergo study and processing in the committee system and three readings in plenary by both legislative chambers.  When necessary to reconcile differences in separate versions of a proposed law, it is studied and processed by a bilateral conference committee composed of representatives of both chambers.  A bicameral conference committee report on a proposed bill must be approved by a majority of the members of each chamber in plenary session before the bill is sent to the president for his consideration.  The president can either sign the bill into law or could veto the same.  Congress can override the presidential veto by a two-thirds vote of all members of each legislative chamber.

A bill may also lapse into law if the president neither signs nor vetoes it 30 days after it was presented for his signature.

While both legislative chambers must act on a proposed law in a symmetric manner, there is some degree of asymmetry between the two houses.  By constitutional fiat, all bills concerning appropriation of public funds, revenue, or tariff; bills authorizing the increase of the public debt; and bills of local application must originate exclusively from the House of Representatives.  The Senate, meanwhile, has the sole responsibility of ratifying treaties and international agreements.

Committees, or small groups of legislators, headed by committee chairs, are the workhorses of Congress.  They study proposed laws and other measures presented for legislative action.  They conduct committee meetings and public hearings to solicit inputs and comments from concerned stakeholders.  Measures recommended for approval by any committee are reported through committee reports that are then submitted to the Committee on Rules, which, after deliberations, may calendar them for plenary action or recommit them to the recommending committees, as warranted by the rules of each legislative chamber.

Congress can create as many legislative committees as it desires.  The rules of each legislative chamber contain provisions specifying the kind, jurisdiction, number of members, proportion of majority and minority membership, frequency of meetings, and other matters pertaining to committees.  These rules can be amended at any time by a majority vote of the members of each chamber.  Through such amendments, committees may be disbanded or created or their jurisdictions may be expanded.  Committees may be permanent standing committees or special committees.  Special committees have jurisdiction over extra-ordinary or urgent concerns that cannot be attended to by regular standing committees.  Committees are empowered to create subcommittees, including subcommittees on oversight.

In both chambers, the choice committees include the Rules, Ways and Means, and Appropriations (or Budget) committees.  In the Senate, a senator who belongs to the majority bloc usually has two standing committee chairmanships and a chance to head an ad hoc or oversight committee.  Among these special Senate committees are the oversight committees on e-commerce, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, dangerous drugs.  In the HOR, the House secretariat divided the committees into five clusters for efficient administration.  However, the Committees on Rules, Ways and Means, and Appropriations are not included in these clusters.  Among the special HOR committees include those on food security, millennium development goals, export promotion, and reforestation.

While chamber majorities (as they vote during plenary sessions) have the potential of being powerful veto players, prominent individual legislators and legislative committees apparently have greater salience.  A committee’s power is largely underpinned by its possession of an ex post veto that allows key committee members a ‘second crack’ on a proposed bill through their participation in the bicameral conference committee process.[2] The closed ‘vote or reject’ rule for plenaries considering bicameral conference committee reports also enhances the veto.[3] In addition, chamber majorities cannot compel legislative committees to report out bills the latter dislike, unlike the situation in the US Congress.

Aside from its power over the public purse or its appropriations power, Congress also exercises investigative powers in aid of legislation and oversight powers designed to ensure that laws are implemented effectively by mandated government agencies and instrumentalities.  While the power of congressional investigation is supposed to use in aid of legislation, it has largely been used by solons for partisan and propaganda purposes.  After scoring points in the mass media, most inquiries are wound down and no new legislation results from the process.  Through a question hour, heads of executive departments may also appear before and be heard by either legislative chamber on any matter pertaining to their departments, upon their request or when compelled to do so by Congress.  The power of investigation and oversight are inherent to the power of lawmaking.

Congress also has non-legislative powers that include the power to canvass presidential elections, declare war, concur with treaties and amendments, propose constitutional amendments, and impeach officials.

[1]  A subpoena is an order summoning a person or persons to appear before the Senate while a subpoena duces tecum is an order calling for the presentation of documents before the Senate.

[2] On any given bill, a committee (especially a large one with numerous members) usually abdicates its considerable powers to some subset of self-selected members on the basis of seniority, acknowledged expertise, and legislative rank.  These legislators exercise the ex post veto by being members of their legislative chamber’s panel to the bicameral conference committee.  Given the larger number, powerful Representatives have greater leeway vis-à-vis their colleagues compared to their Senate counterparts.

[3] In fact, not a single bicameral conference committee report has ever rejected by a plenary vote in either legislative chamber in the post-Marcos era.  During the 8th Congress (1987-1992), the bicameral conference committee report on the bill providing for a commercial logging ban was approved by the Senate.  However, the HOR was already adjourned during the time of the Senate’s approval of the measure and could not act on the same.  For this reason, the bicameral committee report was not transformed into a law.

  1. […] The legislature and Philippine policy making « bong mendoza's blog […]

  2. Lue Sorg says:

    This was a very interesting article. It’s nice in today’s online world when someone takes the time to write a well written post that convey’s real writing ability. Thanks again for the good read! AP Economics is a great course that I teach, but alot of my ap economic students could use tutoring. AP economics isn’t as difficult as you may think, but it does keep the students busy

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