House of Representatives

People first, politics later? Cayetano allies deny session suspended to bar Velasco’s October 14 takeover

Mara Cepeda
Ranking congressmen close to Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano also doubt that Marinduque congressman Lord Allan Velasco has the numbers to secure his takeover

Allies of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano denied they moved to suspend session in the middle of budget deliberations to prevent the takeover of Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco on October 14. 

Ranking lawmakers close to the Speaker were asked in a press conference on Wednesday, October 7, if preempting Velasco was the reason why they moved to hastily pass on 2nd reading the proposed 2021 budget, and to suspend the session until November 16.

“Well, ang primordial interest talaga, people first, politics later. Budget first, speakership later. Kung gusto ni Lord Velasco na unahin his ambition, his desire to be speaker, that’s his prerogative,” said Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund “LRay” Villafuerte.

(Well, the primordial interest really was people first, politics later. Budget first, speakership later. If Lord Velasco wants to prioritize his ambition, his desire to be speaker, that’s his prerogative.)

The Camarines Sur 2nd District congressman then doubted the other camp’s claim that they have already secured the numbers to guarantee Velasco’s takeover. 

Villafuerte said that if they did have the support, then they should have pushed for Velasco to be elected as Speaker by now. 

“So again, the talks leading to October 14 is just pure psywar, hearsay. Kumbaga, ano, (It’s like) they’re just testing the reaction of their colleagues. But at the end of the day, numero pa rin talaga (it’s all about the numbers),” Villafuerte said. 

Lawmakers can only declare the position of Speaker vacant and hold an election for the post when the session is ongoing.

For House committee on public accounts chair Mike Defensor, another pro-Cayetano lawmaker, the 2021 budget and the speakership row should be treated as two separate issues in the chamber.

This is despite the fact that the root cause of the power struggle in the House is precisely the inequitable distribution of the 2021 budget among legislative districts.

“Ibahin natin ‘yung trabaho, ibahin natin ‘yung sabihin na natin ‘yung tactics in the fight (Let’s draw a line between work and what we call tactics in the fight). As far as the budget is concerned we did our job. We approved it already and we will continue to work,” the Anakalusugan congressman said. 

But Velasco himself disagreed, saying Cayetano had “bastardized” the House and supposedly lost the trust and confidence of lawmakers in the process. (READ: In House power play, Speaker Cayetano’s Palace dreams are at stake)

Under a deal green-lighted by President Rodrigo Duterte himself, Cayetano and Velasco are supposed to share terms as Speaker. Cayetano is to sit as House leader for the first 15 months, then Velasco takes over in the 21 months after that.

But it remains unclear when exactly Velasco’s term is supposed to begin. Duterte himself has not given a decisive answer on the matter either, giving Cayetano an advantage in his rivalry with Velasco. (READ: Duterte, Cayetano and the cards they play in the House)

Warning vs holding an ‘illegal session’

Following Cayetano’s latest stunt in the plenary, Buhay Representative Lito Atienza claimed Velasco could still assume as Speaker even with the session suspended.

How? By using the power of the majority to force an election to happen.

“If the majority of members feel otherwise, we can meet and we can reconvene…. We can do our own thing by asserting the power of the majority. Hindi puwede ‘yung one-man rule kami sa Kongreso (There can’t be one-man rule in Congress). This is a democracy,” Atienza told ANC’s Headstart.

Deputy Speaker Neptali “Boyet” Gonzales II, a veteran lawmaker who is part of Cayetano’s inner circle, countered Atienza’s proposition.

He said if the Velasco bloc would convene such a meeting, it would be an “illegal session.”

“It will be an illegal session dahil (because) insofar as the House is concerned, naka-suspend ang session (session is suspended) until November 16,” Gonzales said during the Cayetano allies’ press conference. 

“Palagay ko panay media hype lang ‘yan (I think it’s all media hype),” added Gonzales, who is an expert in parliamentary warfare  as he had been elected House majority leader in the 11th, 12th, 15th, and 16th Congresses.

Gonzales then called on the Velasco bloc to follow proper procedures to push for their leader. 

“As we have followed the rules in approving on second reading the budget, then let us follow the rules in unseating the Speaker, electing a new Speaker, and you can only do that sa (in the) plenary,” the Mandaluyong congressman said. 

“Doon kami maghaharap (Let’s face off there). Then we are ready na harapin sila (to face you) in a parliamentary warfare that will elect or that will dislodge Speaker Alan as the Speaker,” he added. 

There is precedent in the scenario presented by Atienza, however.

Two years ago, allies of then-Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez immediately suspended session when it was clear that the bloc of then-Pampanga congresswoman Gloria Macagapal Arroyo was about to stage a coup

The House’s mace – the symbol of the chamber’s legislative authority – was hidden by pro-Alvarez lawmakers, and they even turned off the microphone at the plenary hall.

But none of these tactics worked. With sheer majority on their side, the disgruntled House members were able to hold their election proceedings that successfully made Arroyo the new Speaker of the House. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.