Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Speaker: A missed chance for redemption?

Mara Cepeda
Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo now has the means – and the platform – to change how the public perceives her, but political observers say she has been too busy with being 'GMA as usual'

MANILA, Philippines – The supremacy of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the House of Representatives is undeniable.

Arroyo, known as an astute and calculating politician, stole the spotlight from President Rodrigo Duterte that fateful day in July when her allies unseated Pantaleon Alvarez and installed her as the new leader at the Batasang Pambansa. (READ: The women behind the fall of Alvarez)

With such a shocking power grab, the pressure was on for Arroyo to prove her critics wrong. Arroyo’s first 5 months as Speaker was a chance for her to redeem herself in the eyes of the public, especially those who followed her 9-year presidency marked by controversies, her nearly 4-year hospital arrest, and her eventual acquittal of plunder charges.

For former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña, the 3-term Pampanga 2nd District congresswoman scuttled her chance for redemption.

“I’m disappointed because this was her chance to vindicate herself, to correct whatever impressions were given during her time as president. What I see is politics as usual, GMA as usual. There’s no converted GMA, there’s no changed GMA. And that’s not very good for the country,” La Viña told Rappler.

Arroyo still continued the practice of rewarding her allies and backed a scenario that Alvarez would never have allowed to happen during his term: the House going head-to-head against allies of the President over the 2019 budget. (READ: [EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: The many shades of pork)

All about the money

The Supreme Court declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel unconstitutional in 2013, yet forms of it continue to be seen in the national budget. 

Arroyo, as Speaker, could have shown that she has left traditional politics behind had she completely “abolished” all forms of pork barrel in the national budget. But that’s just not how the speakership works in the Philippines, explained Ateneo de Manila University assistant professor Carmel Abao.

“What would redeem you? What would redeem you is if you will say that you will abolish pork barrel. You will really reform the way the House makes decisions…. [But] the thing with the speakership is that you don’t need good ideas. You lead with money. You lead with favors. And it’s not only Arroyo [who did this],” Abao said. 

To be fair, Arroyo turned her back on Alvarez’s policy of giving zero budget to opposition legislators as her “gesture of goodwill.

But Akbayan Representative Tom Villarin pointed out that Arroyo had to do this to “appease” all district and party-list representatives after the House coup.

“During Alvarez’s time, there was a supermajority. There was a command that he was the one to be voted. This time, it was different. After the coup, every day, GMA has to win over loyalties,” the opposition congressman explained. 

COUP AFTERMATH. Arroyo rewards all the legislators who made her rise to the speakership possible on July 23, 2018. Photo by Mary Grace dela Serna/Rappler

And what better way to buy loyalty than using Congress’ power of the purse?  

House Majority Leader Rolando Andaya Jr, one of Arroyo’s attack dogs, admitted that every lawmaker was alotted P60 million to fund their pet projects under the proposed P3.757-trillion budget for 2019, while senators were supposedly allotted P200 million each. 

The money was sourced from the P51 billion worth of allegedly “misplaced” funds under the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) that Andaya said lawmakers discovered in the 2019 budget. They accused Alvarez and the former House leadership of “parking” funds to benefit their favored lawmakers, a charge that Alvarez denied.  

Instead of just giving more funds to her allies, however, Arroyo wanted to distribute the money equally among all House members. 

Andaya has since repeatedly told the media that this was not the unconstitutional PDAF, because lawmakers have to itemize the allocation of their P60-million allotment. He also said this was no longer part of the post-budget enactment stage.

Abao insisted it was just another form of pork barrel.

“‘Di naman talaga natapos ‘yong pork barrel. Sa akin kasi, ang ibig sabihin ng pork barrel at the end of the day, kaninong pirma ‘yung mahalaga? ‘Yung pirma lang ni congressman. It’s not so much the rationalization that goes into projects, into priorities. It’s really kung ano ang gusto ni congressman. Imagine if you are the Speaker of the House, ikaw ang masusunod talaga,” Abao said. 

(The pork barrel never stopped. For me, pork barrel means that at the end of the day, whose signature is important? The signature of the congressman. It’s not so much the rationalization that goes into projects, into priorities. It’s really about what the congressman wants. Imagine if you are the Speaker of the House, you will always get your way.)

Allies in key posts

As had been the practice of her predecessors, Arroyo gave plum posts to allies who played key roles in Alvarez’s ouster. (LIST: House leadership changes under Speaker Gloria Arroyo)

Andaya became the majority leader, Bohol 3rd District Representative Arthur Yap and Surigao del Sur 1st District Representative Prospero Pichay Jr became deputy speakers, and Leyte 1st District Representative Yedda Romualdez became chairperson of the committee on accounts. 

The House also ultimately decided to recognize Quezon 3rd District Representative Danilo Suarez as minority leader, even if he had voted for Arroyo to become Speaker. 

Two other congressmen were vying for the post – expelled Arts, Business, and Science Professionals (ABS) representative Eugene de Vera for the Alvarez bloc, and Marikina 2nd District Representative Miro Quimbo for the Liberal Party-Makabayan-Magnificent 7 alliance.

“Logically, it would have been better if she has restored the opposition, right?…. A very strong, missed opportunity [right there]. For whatever it is, Suarez is a GMA man through and through,” La Viña said.

BATTLE FOR MINORITY. Suarez (middle) is seen in a huddle beside Quimbo, who is contesting his minority leadership during the plenary session on July 30, 2018. File photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

Arroyo also allowed the House plenary to remove De Vera as a congressman after the latter was expelled from ABS. De Vera’s party kicked him out because he co-filed a case before the Supreme Court questioning Suarez’s minority leadership.

True, it was Andaya who made the motion to remove De Vera in the roll of members. But Arroyo did not stop him.

“The case of congressman De Vera, obviously, he was singled out because he was the protegé of the Alvarez-Fariñas camp. They challenged [Suarez] in the Supreme Court. So talagang tinanggal nila (so he was really removed) with protests from the opposition and also some House members that are not allied with the opposition. Parang napaka-kuwan naman ‘yon, brusko at saka without due process (That was really brazen and done without due process),” Villarin said.

‘Shepherd’ for Duterte’s pet bills

Still, Arroyo has made her mark as Speaker, easily stepping out of the shadow of her predecessor Alvarez – if there was even a shadow to move out from in the first place. 

Arroyo brought to the House the efficiency and professionalism she was known for as president. Armed with her iPad that she brings everywhere, Arroyo made it her mission to pass the bills Duterte asked Congress to work on in his third State of the Nation Addresses (SONA).

“As you’ve seen, my leadership and management style as Speaker is still similar as when I was president. The key words are hard work, selectively hands-on, especially in shepherding the 2018 SONA bills of President Duterte to passage by the House, strict but hopefully fair and open-minded,” Arroyo said in her speech on December 12 before adjourning session for 2018.

Of the 12 Duterte priority measures that were passed under Arroyo’s speakership, so far, 7 involved taxes. These bills include establishing a fiscal regime for the mining sector, increasing the excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products, updating real property valuation standards, simplifying the tax system for capital income and financial intermediation, the tax amnesty bill, and the Tax Reform for Attracting Better and Higher Quality Opportunities measure.

This is not surprising as Arroyo is an economist. 

DICTATING THE PACE. House ways and means chairperson Estrellita Suansing listens to Arroyo during a hearing on November 13, 2018. File photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

The House also passed on third and final reading the bills on the coco levy fund, the lifting of rice import limits, the creation of the Department of Disaster Resilience, and emergency powers of the the transportation secretary to address traffic.

The House under Arroyo managed to pass the resolution containing its draft federal constitution, even if plenary debates lasted for only 3 session days – a swift passage the House was strongly criticized for. 

One controversial provision of Resolution of Both Houses 15 was the removal of Vice President Leni Robredo in the line of succession during the shift to federalism. Sensing public disapproval, Arroyo ordered the House to reinstate the Vice President in the succession line. 

“The Speaker is very sensitive, and when she thinks the criticism is correct, she will change her position because she listens to the voice of the people,” Pichay said.

Most of the second and third readings for Duterte’s priority bills happened within a week – the kind of speed that Arroyo easily commanded in the House.

Arroyo, the micromanager 

How did she pull it off? Arroyo is a more visible Speaker compared to Alvarez, as she would hop from one committee hearing to another to make sure that Duterte’s priority bills are passed.

She attends plenary sessions, where legislators can be seen either kissing her on the cheek or even kissing her hand. Arroyo would often meet with leaders of the political parties in the House to give her instructions. And when she does, lawmakers are always on their toes – sometimes even literally.  

“When she gives an instruction, you cannot give her a response [that you will] do it later. You should have it done right away, never say next week or two days from now. The best thing you can do is tonight or tomorrow, early morning. That’s the way she is,” said Andaya, who served as budget chief in Arroyo’s Cabinet.

THE BOSS. Members of the House committee on constitutional amendments listen to Arroyo as she gives them instructions on how to proceed with charter change on August 7, 2018. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

Pichay, who led a government-owned and controlled corporation during the Arroyo administration, also described Arroyo’s personal relationships with lawmakers to be “very good.”

“She deals with them personally. And if you go to her office, parating puno ‘yan ng mga members ng House (it’s always filled with House members), telling her about their concerns, whether it be about their jobs or even personal. They will go to her,” he said. 

Andaya described his former boss as a micromanager. 

“Her belief is that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. So you don’t have any chance to blame anyone, you do it yourself. You give the instructions yourself. She would call me on weekends, early morning. It’s as if I’m back in the Cabinet,” he said.

Arroyo vs Duterte looming? 

But for all the efforts Arroyo has put into passing Duterte’s pet bills, her actions show that the former president is not going to be subservient to the incumbent.

The year 2018 closed for the House with lawmakers – led by Andaya and Suarez – accusing Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno of inserting billions in the DPWH’s 2019 budget and supposedly using his influence as Cabinet secretary to help bag billions of infrastructure projects in Sorsogon, where the vice governor is the mother-in-law of Diokno’s daughter. 

Andaya also linked Diokno and a former Cabinet official to C.T. Leoncio Construction and Trading, the company that allegedly cornered billions of government projects. 

The House even went as far as adopting a resolution urging Duterte to fire Diokno. A congressional probe into the alleged budget anomalies is set to kick off on January 3, 2019. 

The House clash with Diokno, who has the trust and confidence of Duterte and his entire Cabinet, came at the heels of Senator Panfilo Lacson’s accusations that the lower chamber approved a pork-filled 2019 budget.

The most worrisome budget issue for La Viña is the looming reenacted budget for 2019, an election year. He believes the battle between the legislative and the executive branches is rooted on campaign funds.  

“By allowing a reenacted budget, suddenly you have all of this money that you can use. That’s why they want Diokno out, because with Diokno there, that’s not their man. They want someone, their man, to be there…. The worst thing is to have a reenacted budget on a reelection year. That gives them so much money to give around!” La Viña said. 

Arroyo had tried to put herself on neutral ground when asked by reporters on how she planned to balance her support for Duterte and Andaya.

“Well, you can see our support for the President, including Cong. Andaya. We finished his legislative agenda in the House. That’s our most important manifestation of support,” Arroyo said in a media interview on December 21.

“Now, with regards to Cong. Andaya’s crusade, well, you know, the House is a collegial body, so I cannot dictate on anybody among them. So if what the House votes for, what the House makes decisions on, that’s part of their role as [members of the] legislature. And what do you call this? Oversight,” she added.

Arroyo dismissed rumors that Duterte’s economic managers – who did not follow her initial suggestions to curb rising inflation – planned to oust her. 

“You know, reports reports reports – those are all rumors, so why spend so much time and emotion on them?” Arroyo said.

The Speaker likewise dismissed as purely “hypothetical” reports that she wanted to replace Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III once her term as congresswoman ends.

La Viña warned, however, that the Speaker has the power to outwit Duterte. She is, after all, the more veteran politician. Months before the July coup, Arroyo kept on denying she was eyeing the speakership.

“I think if Duterte isn’t careful, if [Davao City Mayor] Sara [Duterte Carpio] isn’t careful, they’d be completely outsmarted by GMA. It’s unfortunate that Duterte has not shown an ability to understand the bureaucracy, the government. That’s why he relies on the military,” La Viña said.

For him, Arroyo should be viewed as “a rival” of the President.

FRIENDS FOREVER? Arroyo claps her hands as Duterte receives the replica of the Marawi Filipino-Chinese Friendship Dome from the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc on August 14, 2018. Photo by Ace Morandante/Presidential Photo

Duterte, of course, has all the powers of the presidency in his arsenal. He has the means to put a stop to Arroyo if she overreaches. The President did this when the House refused to abolish the graft-riddled Road Board. (READ: Lawmakers, engineers request P5B in road users’ tax funds)

But for Abao, one thing is certain: Speaker Arroyo is not afraid to play games with the most powerful man in the land. 

“You have to ask: What binds her to Duterte? Nothing. It’s just that he is the incumbent and so far, his policies are favorable to her. But do you really think a Macapagal Arroyo could be dictated by a Duterte?” – Rappler.com

Photo of Arroyo sitting on the Speaker’s rostrum on December 12, 2018 by Jire Carreon/Rappler  

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.