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Cayetano, Velasco, and Sara Duterte | CMFR

Cayetano, Velasco, and Sara Duterte

Photo from pcoo.gov.ph.

SPEAKER ALAN Peter Cayetano (1st Dist., Taguig City) finally tendered his irrevocable resignation and conceded the fight for speakership after an election that gave Rep. Lord Allan Velasco the numbers.

On October 12, 186 lawmakers gave their vote to Velasco, forcing Cayetano to vacate his post and end the slugfest that had already delayed House deliberations on the proposed 2021 national budget. Media, cued by some politicians, raised questions about the legality of the vote. But reports did not dwell on the observation that this was about politics, not the legality of any of the actions on either side of the contest.

Media headlined the speakership row for four weeks, picking up every twist and turn on either side of the two factions. Media coverage, however, did not have much to offer, merely reporting what lawmakers in the opposing camps had to say. They did recall the term-sharing agreement, pointing out that it was the president who brokered the deal in 2019. There was some mention of Velasco’s close ties to presidential daughter Mayor Sara Duterte and the president’s inclination to support Velasco. But there was no real analysis of the role of the president and his family members in the fiasco. 

The task for media on this latest Congressional caper was to analyze whether there was any real difference between the two contenders. More importantly, whether one would be more independent of the president as he moved on to the last two years of his presidency. Neither one seemed ready to break with the president and proclaim the autonomy of the House of Representatives, but leaving this out of the coverage resulted in reporting disconnected from the politics of the matter. None of the reports called attention to the political contest as a waste of time, delaying the discussion of the 2021 national budget.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from October 13 to October 15, 2020.

Missing Context

Most reports recalled the term-sharing deal. Notably, Inquirer.net and GMA News Online timelined events in the speakership fight going back to the beginning of the 18th Congress in July 2019. While they did mention that it was the president who forged the agreement between his two allies, media still missed the important sub-text on the president’s role in the contest.

It was an op-ed piece that pointedly summed up what the whole House drama was. As Federico Pascual Jr.’s said in his Star column, there was no need to replace Cayetano if the objective was to effect change. Whether it’s Cayetano or Velasco, “the ever-loyal House still functions as an annex of Malacañang, a departure from the constitutional concepts of separation of powers, and of checks and balances.”

The rivalry between Cayetano and Velasco revealed another power player in the Duterte family. In 2019, Cayetano’s longer record in government provided him with the opportunity to stand for the speakership. Velasco was a first termer from the province of Marinduque, not a big player in national politics. But Sara had singled him out with her favor after he  campaigned with her Hugpong ng Pagbabago coalition. In July 2018, her animosity for Pantaleon Alvarez (1st Dist., Davao del Norte) made it possible for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2nd Dist., Pampanga) to mount a coup and take over the House leadership. Arroyo had not yet been sworn into office when the president arrived to deliver the SONA, and delayed delivering his speech until after the formalities of her takeover.

Sure, the media could give full play to the circus of term sharing, even to the minutiae of the two boys wanting to celebrate their birthdays in the position. But the news should have found the time to present the resort to a split term as a political accommodation that sacrifices the capacity of Congress to do its work. A split term disrupts the required continuity to get things done in the three years that the speakership is held.

Prior to conceding, Cayetano and his allies were quick to tag the election of Velasco as “fake” and “illegal.” They said that Velasco’s supporters did not use the House mace, the symbol of the authority of the chamber which should be present during sessions. Cayetano said it is against the written formalities and rules of the House and the Constitution.

But with the irrevocable resignation of Cayetano, these legal questions became moot. Velasco had time enough to hold the proceedings as the law requires. Procedural issues are easily dealt with and are quickly discarded to achieve political ends.

As one of the media sources, Antonio LaVina, a law professor and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASOG) pointed out, the speakership is not a legal issue but a political one.

The political story was hardly touched by the media – no report focused on the rising power of the Duterte family members in national politics, and the ramifications of their influence on the future of the country.