Reformist speaker?

BBC-Radio interviewed me about the food crisis and its impact on the Philippines. The interviewer said he is reading my blog. CNN’s Larry King Live emailed me about the articles I wrote on Cyclone Nargis. My reaction to the so-called Young Turks: Bright versus Spice. Tweet Clouds is amusing.

Speaker Prospero C. Nograles is an influential politician in Davao City. He gained national prominence (or notoriety?) when he served as Majority Floor Leader of the House of Representatives in 2004. He made history when he became the first elected Speaker from Mindanao early this year.

His election as Speaker was very controversial. He had to “betray” his political patron, Rep. Jose de Venecia, in order to clinch the support of the ruling coalition. He was perceived to be a stooge of Malacanang. After his victory, critics condemned the continued subservience of the House to the personal agenda of President Gloria Arroyo.

Today Speaker Nograles is still known as a loyal ally of the president. The House is still regarded as a rubber stamp of Malacanang. But the efforts of Speaker Nograles to “reinvent” the House are recognized and appreciated by many groups and individuals. The Speaker’s proposed solutions to some of the country’s problems are innovative (corporate farming), bold (moratorium on land conversions) and sensible (Mindanao Railway System).

It is curious that among the initial acts of the new Speaker was to create a four-man "management team" to implement various image-building projects for the House of Representatives. The team is composed of Virgilio Bugaoisan, a veteran in election-related media campaigns; Reggie Velasco, Secretary-General of Kampi; Ed Malay, spokesman of former President Fidel V. Ramos and Bong Serrano, political officer of Lakas-CMD. It seems the Speaker really wants to overhaul the negative image of the House.

Speaker Nograles bared his program by criticizing the performance of the previous House leadership. Somehow he blamed De Venecia for the low public trust rating of the House. He said in a speech:

"The House leadership is taking steps so that the people may know what their representatives, and not just their Speaker, are doing for them – or to them. This will be a House with no secrets. No secrets payrolls, no secret deals, no secret votes. There will be no more discrimination in the House, whether a member is a member of the majority, or of the minority. The mandate of the new leadership is even clearer. The House wants to work even more and better than in the past. The House wants to work, looking exclusively to the national interest and without looking out for 2010. That is the big difference between the House today and the House before the leadership changed. A Speaker should be seen more often than heard. He is not around to impose his agenda but to move along the agenda of the House.”

Speaker Nograles also took steps to make the people understand the pork barrel system. He published a pamphlet about the legal basis and economic benefits of the pork barrel. This pamphlet will be distributed in schools and communities. The Speaker also mobilized House members to conduct public meetings “to openly explain where their pork barrel funds go.”

Speaker Nograles has also vowed to promote full transparency in the House and transform the institution into a "true house of the people." The Speaker announced that a new website will be created which will contain the details of every congressman’s countrywide development fund. Weekly public tour for students, local officials, and tourists in coordination with the Department of Tourism will be organized. The schedules of committee hearings will be also published in newspapers. The House Journal will be transcribed into readable form so that the public will be encouraged to contribute in the legislation process. The proposal for live television coverage of the plenary proceedings has been revived to discourage absenteeism among House members. Finally, nationwide regional consultations were conceived “to bring the House of Representatives directly to the people.”

The Speaker’s social reform agenda focuses on “protecting the environment, people’s cultural diversity, health, and promoting mobility to ensure a globally competitive and productive manpower.” The Speaker also wants to make Mindanao the new food basket of the Philippines. Among the priority social reform measures are the following:

1. Creation of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos;
2. Land Administration Reform;
3. Repeal of the Agri-Agra Law;
4. Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Management Act;
5. Responsible Parenthood and Population Management Act;
6. Amendments to the GASTPE Law; and
7. Creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This summer period, the Speaker said the House will prioritize discussions on the Baselines Bill, Cheaper Medicines Act, tax exemption, agrarian reform extension, corporate farming and anti-hoarding, The Speaker also said the House plans to approve the following measures before June 30:

1. The omnibus proposals to strengthen the Political Parties;
2. The proposal to amend the EPIRA Law;
3. The proposed Access to Information Act
4. The proposed amendments to the Overseas Absentee Voting Act;
5. The amendments to the Cooperative Code of the Philippines;
6. The proposed Magna Carta for Agricultural Development Workers;
7. The proposal to establish the Career Executive System; and
8. The proposal to Establish Personal Equity and Retirement Account or PERA

Also on the agenda for approval are the following proposals:

1. The creation of the Department of Information and Communications Technology;
2. The Sustainable Forest Management Bill;
3. The proposal for Additional Retirement Benefits for the members of the Judiciary;
4. The proposal to grant Special Allowance to Judges of Municipal Trial Courts and Shariah Courts;
5. Compensation for Human Rights Victims;
6. The proposal to grant Old-Age pension for life for senior citizens; and
7. The transfer of Philippine Coast Guard to the Department of Transportation and Communications.

Despite the seemingly pro-people platform of the new House leadership, Speaker Nograles has not veered away from the legislative agenda of President Arroyo. Speaker Nograles remains a reliable ally of Malacanang. He praised the Supreme Court decision on the doctrine of executive privilege which clipped the oversight functions of Congress. He supported the Malacanang-backed proposal to hold public hearings on high power rates which was seen by many as an act of harassment against the Lopez family which owns Meralco and the highly critical ABS-CBN media group. The House is still the House of Gloria, not House of the People.

Speaker Nograles should continue the reform measures which he has already implemented. But he should remember that improving the image of the House is not a simple task. Websites, tours, brochures, grassroots consultations and image management teams are not enough. It is not difficult to explain the high public trust ratings of senators. The senate as an institution has shown its independence from Malacanang by investigating anomalies in the executive department.

If Speaker Nograles wants the people to appreciate the pork barrel, the best thing to do is to remind House members not to use public funds for personal enrichment. Speaker Nograles should punish lawmakers who use the pork barrel for illegal and unethical uses.

In short, there is nothing mysterious in reinventing the House. Follow the Constitution. Serve the people. Promote good governance. Strive to be independent from Malacanang.

The credibility of Speaker Nograles will be tested in the next few months. An impeachment case might be filed again against the president. Charter Change or the Federalism proposal will be tackled soon. Speaker Nograles should not derail the impeachment process. He should not endorse the ChaCha that will extend the term limits of incumbent elected politicians.

What will happen to the public hearings on high energy rates? Will there be a House investigation on corruption cases involving the president?

Related entries:

Brokeback politics
Con-ass
Interview with solons

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