Last week, I found myself in an engaging conversation with colleagues from the Senate secretariat at a lunch hosted by the US Embassy. As a secretariat official from the House of Representatives, it is always interesting for me to compare notes with the Senate officials on our internal processes in a cordial fashion and to complement each other on what we think each other is doing well. Full disclosure: Nothing was discussed on the 2019 budget.
The conversation was first grounded on the key differences between senators and House members. Senators are elected nationally for a term of six years, while congressmen are elected by a specific constituency (local) or sector (national) only for a term of three years.
Senators usually have had a long career doing legislative work, at times as a congressman or have been previously elected to a local executive position. It is rare for an individual to be elected with no legislative background, e.g. Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson. It is therefore more likely for a senator to bring in a battery of lawyers and researchers given their past background in government service, but with Mayor Rodrigo Duterte breaking the traditional route to the presidency (not having been previously nationally elected), we might be seeing more senators who have not been elective officials before, i.e., “Bong” Go or “Bato” de la Rosa, if they win.
This being so, the structure of the secretariats of the House and Senate have some consequential differences as well. For the Senate, the 24 senators bring in around 40 staff and this makes their secretariat smaller. But for the House, the nearly 300 congressmen only have six plantilla coterminous staff each, which explains the larger secretariat staff on whom there is more dependence in the areas of bill drafting, legal and policy research. Special mention was made of the House “think tank” on budget policy, the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department, as it is active in the academe and it publishes well-researched pieces monthly. I emphasized that since the composition of the House changes every three years, it is important for the House secretariat to be stable and professional.
Questions were propounded by our hosts on our own personal opinions on certain issues, not reflective of our respective institutions, such as the partylist system, the importance of the leadership of the Senate President and Speaker, constitutional amendments and the upcoming midterm elections. Though our answers varied, it was evident that the passion to legislate of both House and Senate officials was very much alive, regardless of the differences in policy and leadership our political principals may have.
One burning topic was the possible inclusion of a provision lifting term limits in the new Constitution. One of the attendees expressed that he is favorable to this provision since it will prevent the practice of having a congressman’s wife or child run in his place after three terms, thereby sacrificing the quality of leadership, since said family member is elected due to name and not credentials. The term limit has also made some politicians to be creative in skirting the law by their orchestrated interruption of their last term which allows them to run under a fresh first term. This explains how some officials end up with a fifth consecutive term.
When asked on what I can change in the House, I immediately answered that more technology must be integrated in the legislative process. I mentioned that under the leadership of the Office of House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the House secretariat is undergoing a project to come up with a world-class ICT Initiative, particularly for the legislative process and we are aiming its implementation before the Speaker steps down on 30 June.
I also shared that during a visit to Batasan by parliamentarians from Poland last February, the delegates noticed the piles of paper on the desks of the congressmen in the Plenary Hall and shared that their parliament utilizes electronic tablets. Imagine how efficient the legislators will be if this was done in the House but, of course, we would expect some resistance from the less tech-savvy congressmen. The Senate officials said that with their impending move to their new office in Taguig, they likewise hope that they would have a paperless procedure to complement their new modern office.
I chided that the entire legislative process would be more seamless only if the House and Senate were physically located near each other, although this will remain a dream since the House would never leave its complex in Batasan. The entire group then daydreamed on how it would have been much better for the country if the original design plan for all government offices to be located in Quezon City actually happened.
The session ended on a high note and I was glad to make new acquaintances from the Senate. All this happened in the midst of an ongoing disagreement between our respective principals with regard the 2019 budget. It was said the country will remain on a reenacted budget until August 2019, already way past the middle of the year. This will be prejudicial to our country since a reported P150 million is lost every day due to this impasse and several projects are dependent on the approval of the 2019 General Appropriations Act. While we work to represent the best interests of our bosses, we hope that our legislators will find a way to place their differences and past vendettas aside and place the welfare of our country as the topmost priority. In any case, the President has spoken, prodded Congress to pass the budget, but proclaimed that he will sign no illegal document. The directive has been given — it is now time to settle issues and get back to work.