Some perks of House majority congressmen

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 29 2019 03:26 PM | Updated as of Aug 29 2019 04:02 PM

Members of the House of Representatives huddle together during a break in a plenary session, in Quezon City on August 28, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - With its 36-month term made even more challenging by the term-sharing agreement for its top post, the House of Representatives under the 18th Congress is on a quest to make its colorful operations more efficient amid the division of the chamber's leadership posts among the majority coalition members.

Around 4 weeks into the First Regular Session of the 18th Congress, the House of Representatives elected its 22nd Deputy Speaker—the most in the history of the chamber.

On top of this, the chamber has also managed to elect the chairmanships of about two-thirds of its 75 standing and special committees, with the top blocs Partido Demokratiko Pilipino - Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), Nacionalista Party (NP), Party-List Coalition, National Unity Party (NUP), and the Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC) getting sizeable numbers of committee chairmanships under their wing. 

'POLITICAL ACCOMMODATION' 

UP Political Science Assistant Professor Jean Franco sees the rising number of deputy speakerships and the division of the chairmanships and leadership positions as nothing but political accommodation. 

“More deputy speakers mean that this is the result of political accommodation and bargaining in the run up to the controversial speakership post,” she said. 

Franco explained that the rising number of deputy speakers is one way of how the speakership election is won through relationships of congressmen, premised on bargaining for leadership positions in the House. 

“The Speaker is elected informally through yung kasama na diyan na personal relationships, yung barkadahan, relationships by affinity, kasama na rin yung bargaining for certain positions. Kasi in the past, wala namang deputy speaker pero in the past decade, dumami nang dumami. That’s also something that other members of the House who would want to support a Speaker would be bargaining for, aside from also being the head of important committees in the House,” she said. 

The House has 60 standing committees and 15 special committees with specific jursidictions and specialities. These committees and their chairmen get first crack at studying, writing, consolidating and refining bills that could eventually be passed into law by Congress, like the annual national budget.

But Franco said, those in leadership positions, like deputy speakers and committee chairs, get additional budget. “If one is a deputy speaker, then one would have an office and additional staff and budget,” she said. 

Franco clarified that this is aside from the regular office budget one enjoys simply for being a congressman. ”You have your own budget you, can have at least 6 staff tapos meron ka pang district staff...Pag may committee, that's additional budget and of course, you're able to travel, may perks of travelling. Aside from having a staff, you have a budget also sa district office mo.”

HOUSE PERKS 

To illustrate, a study by the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group of the Commission on Audit's (COA) “Itemized list of amounts paid to and expenses incurred for each House member” for the year 2017 showed that the members of the House of Representatives received and spent a total of P4.89 billion that year. 

Broken down, out of the 60 committee chairs identified by COA, only 18 had a chairmanship allocation in 2017. Amounts ranged from P120,000 to P240,000 for chairpersons of Standing Committees. Ten chairpersons received P240,000 each, the highest amount allocated for standing committee chairmanship. 

Out of 27 chairpersons of Standing Committees, only 14 received a chairmanship allocation. The highest chairmanship allocation in 2017: P9.53 million for Marinduque Lone District Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco as chair of the Joint Congressional Power Commission (JCPC). Velasco is the only one among the 30 oversight committee chairs identified by COA who had a chairmanship allocation in 2017.

In a statement from his office, Velasco explained that he surmises that committees get a bigger budget when they have more important and pressing matters that the leadership wants to be taken up or expedited. 

For himself, Velasco said that as far as the Committee on Energy is concerned, the budget refers to a separate office which is the JCPC or the Joint Congressional Power Commission. “For the allocation of the energy committee, you have to consider that under the EPIRA [Electric Power Industry Reform Act] law, and as energy chair, we also chair the JCPC together with our Senate counterpart, Senator Win Gatchalian,” he said.

However, Velasco stressed that the JCPC is a specific creation of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) and should not be reckoned with the accounts of the House. “The JCPC accounts are distinct from the House of Representatives', and its budget is spent mainly for personnel, operational expenses and supplies.”

Meanwhile, 60 committee chairs identified by COA in 2017 spent P27.46 million. The expenses ranged from a low of P49,000 to a high of P2.14 million for a single committee. 

OVERSIGHT COMMITTEES 

An examination of the COA List showed that among the top three spenders among committee chairs for 2017 was Surigao del Norte 2nd District Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, who spent P1.58 million as chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee on the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act.

Barbers, in a text message, explained that the oversight committee's expenses are because of the anti-illegal drug symposiums held in universities and colleges it held to help the national government campaign against narcotics through education. “I think if I'm not mistaken, yung Committee on Dangerous Drugs, kasi we did this campaign, yung Matatag na Republika Galit sa Droga symposium in all universities and schools. We did that in 2016 to 2018.”

For this purpose, Barbers disclosed he bought a vehicle for the committee. “We bought a vehicle for us to be able to use when we go out of town for our Matatag na Republika Galit sa Droga campaign. We started going region to region, going to schools and universities and then do some symposiums on anti-drug programs.”

However, Barbers added that he also spent for the committee’s office. ”We had to spend for the committee room kasi we don't have any committee room and I believe we should have our own committee room in the House kasi there are times when we have to keep a lot of files, conduct a lot of confidential meetings with the PDEA [Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency] hierarchy, PNP [Philippine National Police] hierarchy, NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] hierarchy and all those groups so we really have to have an office for that purpose, isa yan. Yun ang bulk ng aming expenditure.”

Barbers said that the budgets of almost all oversight committees are decided and approved by the committee on accounts with the Speaker’s imprimatur.

Then-Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez’s congressional office directed this reporter’s inquiries to the Committee on Accounts. Then-Accounts Committee Chair Eileen Ermita Buhain has yet to respond to our requests for comment. 

On average, chairpersons of oversight committees spent more than the chairpersons of standing and special committees. To Illustrate, chairpersons of Standing Committees had expenses that ranged from P49,000 to P1.21 million per committee chairmanship. That’s an average of P207,174 in expenses. On the other hand, chairpersons of Oversight Committees spent anywhere from P361,290 to P2.14 million per committee chairmanship, which is an average of P719,358 in expenses. Chairpersons of Special Committees spent between P92,600 to P98,400 or an average of P95,930 in expenses. 

Then-House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez spent P41.04 million in 2017--the highest expenses among all House members that year. Seventy-four percent of his expenses went to “contractual consultants,” which amounted to P30.5 million.

Under the Salary Standardization Law, House Speakers have a Salary Grade (SG) 32, the highest step of which translates to P198,255 monthly. Regular House members at salary grade 31 earn P169,357 monthly, the highest step of SG 31.

Under the Duterte Administration, the House’s budget rose from P9.68 billion in 2017 to P11.17 billion in 2018 to P12 billion in 2019.

'MORE DEPUTIES, MORE EFFICIENT'

Seats for committee members await before a hearing at the House of Representatives on August 28, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

For his part, Speaker Cayetano and one of his deputy speakers, Dan Fernandez, explained how their own changes in the House hierarchy will actually make things more efficient.

With more Deputy Speakers, Cayetano said it will be easier to shepherd bills like the national budget along the legislative mill. 

Cayetano said that from merely having deputy speakers representing geographic regions of the country, he now has deputy speakers who will serve as point persons for items on the list of their legislative priorities. 

”So, binawasan po namin ng pito sa per region, so ngayon, regional - Southern Luzon, Central Luzon, Northern Luzon, Eastern & Western Visayas, Northern & Southern Mindanao. So 7 yun. Yung labinlima, naka-cluster lahat ng departamento at yung advocacy,” he said. 

For example, Cayetano said Eddie Villanueva is Deputy Speaker for Good Governance & Moral Uprightness; Evelina Escudero is Deputy Speaker for Education & Future-thinking; Roberto Puno is Deputy Speaker for Transport, Mobility & Connectivity. 

Previously announced were Paolo Duterte as Deputy Speaker for Political Affairs, Neptali Gonzales II as Deputy Speaker for Internal Affairs, LRay Villafuerte is Deputy Speaker for Finance, Loren Legarda is Deputy Speaker for Health and Environment and Ecology. 

“So ginawa natin na working ngayon, parang yung chairman ng committee, parang siya pa rin ang COO [chief operating officer] o presidente ng kumpanya. Pero yung deputy speaker, siya yung cluster ng mga chairman,” said Cayetano.

Cayetano, however, clarified that these are not additional powers, but just additional work. “Basically, hindi ko sila dinadagdagan ng power. Lahat yung sinabi ko kanina na dapat gawin, trabaho ng speaker yun. Eh hindi ko naman mahahati ang aking katawan."

Fernandez explained, Cayetano will be clustering committees around the Deputy Speakers tasked to fast-track the passage of priority measures. ”Halimbawa, 5 committees will be under my supervision. I will be dealing with the 5 chairmen to report to me on the status of the bills prioritized by the Speaker.”

The House website says the Deputy Speakers are the second highest-ranking officials of the Philippine House of Representatives. During the absence of the House Speaker, one of the House Deputy Speakers will preside over the House of Representatives. They may also perform such other duties and functions as may be assigned or delegated to them by the Speaker.

Fernandez doesn’t expect any conflict between the deputy speakers and the committee chairmen since their job is just to push priorities. “Of course, yung leadership sa chairman, sila ang nasusunod, but kami, ang aming trabaho is to fast-track the priority bills that we wanted to pass.”

Additionally, Fernandez explained the higher number of deputy speakers is because of the increasing number of congressmen. “Kasi dumadami din yung ating congressmen. Imagine, dati 270 lang ata 280; ngayon 307, 308.”

Section 31 of the House Rules says that the Speaker, the Deputy Speakers, the Majority Leader, the Deputy Majority Leaders, the Minority Leader, the Deputy Minority Leaders, and the Chairperson of the committee on Accounts or a member deputized by any of the aforementioned officials shall have voice and vote in all committees.

Cayetano belied that the reorganization of the House was an exercise in political accommodation. 

“I think imposible namang maging happy lahat. But I'd say this - nung umpisa, parang iniisip nila, we'll do it the trapo or traditional way. Kung sino malaki balwarte, matagal na. Pero nung nakikita nilang mina-match natin yung kanyang passion, yung kanyang kakayahan, minatch natin dun. I think nakikita naman nung karamihan ng mga miyembro na yun pong merit-based o performance-based na pagbibigay ng committees ay akma.”

For his part, Fernandez clarified that while both committee chairmen and deputy speakers get additional staff, they don’t get additional budget. ”Lahat naman eh pag chairman ka, nagkakaroon ka ng additional staff eh parang 2 to 3 additional staff (deputy speakers) ganun din siguro, all are the same, wala kaming additional budget, staff lang.”

Congress goes on recess October 5, 2019.