House of Representatives

Legal questions hound Velasco as House of Duterte splits further

Mara Cepeda
Legal questions hound Velasco as House of Duterte splits further

Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco addresses his allies after they elect him as Speaker on October 12, 2020. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Political experts say the speakership row 'boils down to who has the numbers'

Legal questions hounded Representative Lord Allan Velasco after 186 allies elected him speaker of the House of Representatives on Monday, October 12, as political drama took a momentous turn while a pandemic budget was held hostage.

Representative Alan Peter Cayetano – who, just less than two weeks earlier, had 184 supporters in a House of 299 members – refused to budge, saying Velasco’s election at a sports club was unconstitutional.

One House with two speakers – Allan and Alan, both allies of the President – thrusts Rodrigo Duterte in a unique situation in a chamber that has always handed him a supermajority.

Legal questions hound Velasco as House of Duterte splits further

“It will be resolved tomorrow when Congress convenes,” said law professor and former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña in a text message on Monday.

When asked about the validity of Velasco’s election, La Viña said: “Valid is not the right term for a political process. It boils down to who has the numbers.”

Legal questions hound Velasco as House of Duterte splits further

On Monday, allies of Velasco conducted an unprecedented session at the Celebrity Sports Plaza, located 5 kilometers away from the Batasang Pambansa, to unseat Cayetano and elect the Marinduque congressman as their new leader. 

The Velasco bloc initially planned to just gather their forces at the sports club before heading to Batasan to stage their coup against Cayetano.

But the plenary hall was padlocked and the electricity supply was cut off. So they proceeded to Plan B: hold their own session inside the sports club instead.

The Velasco bloc also had their own House mace created for the proceedings in a bid to add legitimacy to the Marinduque congressman’s takeover.

The mace is the symbol of the legislative authority of the House – which had, in fact, triggered questions about legitimacy in the past, as when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was elected speaker in 2018.

Deputy Majority Leader Juan Pablo “Rimpy” Bondoc moved to recognize the said mace as an official one of the House. The pro-Velasco lawmakers unanimously agreed.

THE MACE. Allies of Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco move to recognize this House mace as official. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

But doubts have already been raised about the validity of Velasco’s election as Speaker, with critics calling it a rump session.

Why? The House is officially not in session until Tuesday, October 13. The House rules state an election for Speaker can be done only when the chamber is in session.

Section 16(5), Article VI of the 1987 Constitution also states the House can conduct legislative sessions outside of Batasan only if the Senate has given its consent.

The said provision reads: “Neither House during the sessions of the Congress shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.”

Cayetano, who slammed the Celebrity Sports Plaza proceedings as a “fake session,” reminded Velasco’s supporters to respect the law of the land.

Legal questions hound Velasco as House of Duterte splits further

“Don’t throw the Constitution into the waste basket,” said Cayetano in a press conference while Velasco was being elected Speaker. “But if you try to burn this house down, you’re in for one hell of a fight.”

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Even Albay 1st District Representative Edcel Lagman – who agrees Velasco should take over under the term-sharing deal – believes the Marinduque congressman’s election still needs to be “legitimized” during the special session.

Still, Lagman concedes the proceedings at Celebrity Sports Plaza is a “show of force” of Velasco.

Legal questions hound Velasco as House of Duterte splits further

“For all intents and purposes, the assembly at the Celebrity Sports Plaza can be considered a show of force or numerical superiority of the Velasco camp. Consequently, the ‘election’ of Velasco has to be legitimized by holding a nominal voting for the new Speaker during any day of the special session,” Lagman said in a statement. 

‘Speakership issue political, not legal’

But La Viña and a former congressman separately told Rappler that the speakership is not a legal issue but a political one.

This means it would ultimately boil down to who has the numbers in the House, something that both Velasco and Cayetano are expected to demonstrate during Tuesday’s special session. 

A total of 184 lawmakers voted to elect Velasco, yet Cayetano is still claiming that 205 legislators signed a manifesto backing his retention as Speaker. These numbers do not add up, since there are only 299 members of the House.

VELASCO’S NUMBERS. Lawmakers listen to Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Velasco’s speech on October 12, 2020. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

A former lawmaker, who refused to be named, also said the issues being raised against Velasco’s election are “mere technicalities.”

“The ultimate measure is who has the numbers. When each side claims that it has the numbers, then the next question that will arise is how do you count the numbers? Each side will also contest this,” said the former congressman.

For the former legislator, only the Chief Executive himself can settle the speakership row once and for all.

“The only way this question can be answered with finality is by a political decision by the ultimate political decision-maker, the President. Of course, this will not happen openly as that would violate the principle of separation of powers,” the former congressman said. 

But Duterte already did this over a year ago when he ended the divisive speakership race by green-lighting the Cayetano-Velasco term-sharing deal.

Both camps also ran to Malacañang on September 29 when it became clear Cayetano and Velasco could not agree on the exact date the latter is supposed to take over as Speaker.

Eventually, Velasco said Duterte felt duped by Cayetano when the latter refused to honor the term-sharing deal brokered by the President.

“Kitang-kita ko ‘yung galit ng Pangulo. Sabi sa akin ni Pangulo, ‘Lord, hindi lang ikaw ang napahiya rito; tayong dalawa.’ Actually, the President used the word ‘nadenggoy.’ Sabi niya ‘Lord, nadenggoy tayong dalawa,” Velasco said.

(The President was clearly very angry. He told me, “Lord, you weren’t the only one who got embarrassed here; it’s both of us.” Actually, the President used the word “duped.” He said, “Lord, we were both duped.”)

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Most of the time, the House has been derogatorily referred to as a rubber stamp of the President, primarily because of the shepherding done by the Speaker to deliver what the country’s chief executive needs in terms of legislative support.

But one thing is clear: As Velasco and Cayetano continue to play their game of thrones, the fate of the 2021 budget – stalled by the speakership drama – hangs in the balance. The biggest casualty of this bitter House rivalry may as well be the Filipinos already aching for help in the middle of a crippling pandemic. – Rappler.com

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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.