Cayetano’s charm offensive in House shields him from SEA Games backlash

Mara Cepeda
Cayetano’s charm offensive in House shields him from SEA Games backlash
Once the least trusted among the bets for Speaker, Alan Peter Cayetano works double time to woo House members. His tactics seem to be paying off.

MANILA, Philippines – Mistrust was the biggest monster Alan Peter Cayetano had to slay the moment he became House Speaker.

Until the day President Rodrigo Duterte gave him his blessing, Cayetano was not the top choice to be the next leader of the House of Representatives. 

He was believed to have had the weakest support among House members during the speakership race, as he had failed to cultivate personal relationships with congressmen before announcing his bid for Speaker. 

Cayetano had also been up against formidable opponents backed by powerful political forces. There was Martin Romualdez, longtime friend of many incumbent legislators and who has the ever-mighty support of former president turned speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. 

Then there was Lord Allan Velasco, the relatively younger politician from Marinduque who is close to the President himself and an ally of Duterte’s heir and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. 

But when the fickle President finally green-lighted the term-sharing deal between Cayetano and Velasco, lawmakers set aside their personal dislike of Cayetano in a bid to secure key House posts that had been promised to them. Romualdez agreed to be the influential Majority Leader instead. 

This is not lost on Cayetano, who took advantage of the messy aftermath of the speakership battle and went on a charm offensive in the House – something he’s been doing every day since he stood on the Speaker’s rostrum for the first time on July 22.  

This constant wooing of legislators hungry for plum House posts and hefty budget allocations for their districts protected Cayetano once logistical snafus and alleged budget anomalies hounded the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, whose organizing committee he himself headed.  

How did Cayetano pull it off?

Money, money, money

Cayetano worked overtime to earn the trust of House members. 

His first priority was figuring out how to satisfy every lawmaker who was expecting to head a prized House committee or to become deputy speaker. This prompted Cayetano to hold weeks-long negotiations with major House blocs and even individual legislators to decide who sits in the leadership with him.

Of course, lawmakers who were most loyal to Cayetano got the posts they wanted. But more positions were created to accommodate others.

Case in point: there are now 22 deputy speakers in the 18th Congress as compared to 14 in the previous 17th Congress. The vice chairpersons of the committee on appropriations – the panel that has power over the proposed annual national budget – also ballooned to 37 from 25 in the past Congress.

Even legislators part of the opposition groups against Duterte now hold key House posts. Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher Belmonte, the secretary-general of the once-ruling Liberal Party, and Carlos Zarate of the progressive Bayan Muna party-list were both named deputy minority leaders.

The Speaker, however, denied he was accommodating the different factions in the House.

“Actually baliktad. Kung iisipin ko lang sarili kong pulitika, then we’ll have less. Tapos ang tradition kasi, alagaan mo ‘yong nang-loyal sa ’yo,” said Cayetano in an ambush interview on September 23. “But we want to make congressmen much more inclusive.”

(I think it’s the opposite. If I had just considered my own politics, we’ll have less. The tradition used to be you’d take care of those who were loyal to you. But we want to make congressmen much more inclusive.)

But what is perhaps the best way to a congressman’s heart? His purse, or rather, the purse of his district. Rappler sources said Cayetano tried his best to also accommodate requests of lawmakers to increase allocations for their respective districts in the proposed P4.1-trillion budget in 2020.  

When the House passed the 2020 budget on 3rd reading, Cayetano said they realigned P9.52 billion to benefit various government agencies. But Senator Panfilo Lacson accused the Cayetano-led House of allegedly inserting 742 projects worth P16.345 billion in the proposed national budget at the last minute.

House committee on appropriations vice chairperson Joey Salceda also admitted every legislator will be getting P100 million under the 2020 budget to fund their pet projects. Both he and Cayetano insist this is not a form of the now-unconstitutional pork barrel.

“On the budget, he’s very, very generous to the congressmen. The most generous ever!” one administration-allied legislator said, describing Cayetano. “He delivered what we were waiting for. That’s positive proof of the support of the President. 

A ‘master of human nature’

Beyond distributing power and money, Cayetano also focused his efforts on befriending his colleagues.

His office on the second floor of the Batasang Pambansa is always open to lawmakers, a practice implemented by his predecessor Arroyo that Cayetano continues now that he’s Speaker.

When Cayetano himself is not available, his allies serve as legislators’ bridge to him. Among those in his inner circle are Deputy Speakers Neptali “Boyet” Gonzales II (Mandaluyong), Luis Raymund Villafuerte (Camarines Sur, 2nd District), and Dan Fernandez (Laguna, 1st District), House committee on accounts chairperson Abraham Tolentino (Cavite, 8th District), and House Deputy Secretary-General Brian Yamsuan. 

The Speaker’s closest ally and confidante is his wife Lani, who represents the second district of Taguig City-Pateros and is president of the Congressional Spouses Foundation Inc. 

BIRTHDAY WISH. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano blows his birthday cake as his wife and Taguig City-Pateros 2nd District Representative Lani Cayetano stands by him on October 28, 2019. Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

Cayetano also turned the Batasan’s South Lounge into a bistro of sorts, where lawmakers who need to take a break from the afternoon plenary sessions can watch a live band perform and sip a drink or two with the Speaker himself on Mondays to Wednesdays.

When the SEA Games was in full swing from November to December, Cayetano gave courtside tickets to lawmakers who wanted to watch the games with him.  

Cavite 7th District Representative Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, whose position as Senior Deputy Majority Leader makes him the right-hand man of Romualdez, appreciated this gesture from the Speaker.  

The veteran politician from Cavite puts it best: Cayetano is a “master of human nature.”

“Basa niya ‘yong tao eh! He gives importance to people. He calls people in and he’s always trying to be helpful, give people importance. ‘Yon naman ang human nature eh,” Remulla said 

(He can read people well. He gives importance to people. He calls people in and he’s always trying to be helpful, give people importance. That’s what human nature is all about.)

NO MORE FIGHTING. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano shares a light moment with Majority Leader Martin Romualdez and Senior Deputy Majority Leader Boying Remulla on July 22, 2019. Photo by Lito Borras/Rappler

But legislators are still warming up to Cayetano after the first 5 of his 15-month stint as Speaker, a Congress insider privy to the sentiments of the major House blocs told Rappler. 

“That’s the difference between Cayetano and the other previous Speakers – he’s trying to reach out by the system of camaraderie, drinking together, listening to music together. But of course, bonding takes time to develop, right?” said the source. “It boils down to personal relationships. You have to develop some comfort level.”

Romualdez gives way

That Romualdez has settled in his role as Majority Leader helped maintain a sense of order in the House. The Leyte congressman said it was easier for him to concede defeat to Cayetano because the Speaker was his friend. 

“Itong relasyon namin ni Speaker, kaibigan naman talaga (My relationship with the Speaker is really that of friends),” Romualdez said in a press conference together with Cayetano and other House leaders on December 23. “Although we were betting on the same position, I’d like to thank him for being very magnanimous.”

But there were grumblings in the Romualdez bloc during the first weeks of the 18th Congress. He may be the majority leader, but that meant Romualdez is just second to the Speaker and therefore had less bargaining power in securing leadership posts for his friends.  

Some of these lawmakers, Remulla admitted, even wanted Romualdez to challenge Cayetano’s victory. How did they manage these allies?  

“[We told them to] stop talking! ‘Yong mga gusto pa ring mamulitika (Those who wanted to continue politicking), tell them to shut up,” said Remulla, Romualdez’s close friend and fraternity brother in Upsilon Sigma Phi. 

“Kami ni Majority Leader, we’re very close eh. Kaya ‘pag tapos na, tapos na. ‘Yong mga gusto pa ring ituloy ‘yong laban, eh nahahalata sila. Hindi na sila pinapansin kasi nga, we have to focus on the job eh,” added Remulla. 

(The Majority Leader and I are very close. It’s over when it’s over for us. Those who wanted to continue fighting were obvious. We didn’t mind them anymore because we had to focus on the job.) 

As majority leader, Romualdez followed the “first in, last out” mindset that past majority leaders under the Duterte administration like Rodolfo “Rudy” Fariñas Jr and Rolando Andaya Jr were known for. 

But unlike his predecessors, Romualdez rarely grants solo ambush interviews and would always seek clearance from Cayetano first before making statements to the media. It’s simply part and parcel of the power dynamics in the House now.

“Siyempre we give due deference to them. Siyempre sila na ang Speaker eh,” Remulla said of Cayetano and his allies. “Pero hindi naman kami bago sa Congress eh. We know the culture of Congress.” 

(Of course we give due deference to them. They’re now the team behind the Speaker. But we’re not neophytes here in Congress. We know the culture of Congress.)

THE SPEAKER'S MEN. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano (center) poses for a photo with House Deputy Secretary-General Brian Yamsuan, House committee on good government and public accountability chair Jose Sy-Alvarado, House committee on public accounts chair Mike Defensor, Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte, and House Secretary-General Luis Montales. Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

Cayetano also had no choice but to trust Romualdez, the man expected to whip votes for him.

This became even more crucial when the Speaker, as head of the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc), had to be away from the House when controversies pertaining to the biennial regional sporting meet started popping up one after another.

“I have to trust him. You know like, sa SEA Games, hindi ko mapapatakbo nang maayos kung wala si Martin sa floor. Kasi kung hindi ako, kung may gulo at ‘di ako makaalis doon, I cannot be in two places at the same time, ‘di ba? So ‘yong dynamics na ‘yon came into play,” Cayetano said on December 23.  

(I have to trust him. Like with the SEA Games, I wouldn’t have been able to run that well if Martin was not on the floor. Because if there was conflict and I couldn’t leave the place immediately, I cannot be in two places at the same time, right? So that dynamics came into play.) 

Months after the divisive speakership race, Cayetano and Romualdez can now crack jokes about how each of them would try to spend longer hours in the House than the other.

“There’s a secret I want to tell you,” Romualdez said during the same press briefing. “Minsan talaga, gusto ko nang umuwi, pero nakita ko ‘yong kotse ni Speaker sa labas. So sabi ko, ‘Andito pa si Speaker. Balik na lang ako!’”

(There’s a secret I want to tell you. There were times I really wanted to go home already, but I would see the Speaker’s car outside. I’d tell myself, ‘The Speaker is still here. I’ll just go back!’)

After laughing at Romualdez’s joke, Cayetano told his Majority Leader: “Buti na lang sinabi mo ‘yong tungkol sa kotse mo, kasi ngayon alam na ng staff ko. Kasi sabi ng staff ko, ‘Sir, hindi ka puwede umuwi. Nandiyan pa si Martin!’” 

(It’s a good thing you told me about your car, because now my staff knows about it. Because my staff would tell me, “Sir, you can’t go home yet. Martin is still here!”)

The Speaker then said he has another car permanently parked at Batasan to fool Romualdez, eliciting more laughter from the crowd.  

This may all be light banter, but it’s indicative of the tension that remains between the two strongest contenders for Speaker. Romualdez has not given up on his dream to lead the House either.

“He’ll be Speaker someday,” a confident Remulla declared. “There will be another Congress where he will be Speaker. Magaling si Majo (The Majority Leader is good).”

Shield from the SEA Games fiasco

Still, Cayetano’s tactics in the House seem to be working. The criticisms against him and Phisgoc’s blunder-filled hosting of the SEA Games had been relentless, but the Speaker has come out relatively unscathed. 

It didn’t matter to lawmakers that at least P6 billion of the SEA Games hosting funds followed Cayetano from one agency to another, or that a Phisgoc-endorsed body gave an award to Phisgoc

As long as the controversies did not involve the House, lawmakers found no reason to demand for Cayetano’s head.

UNSCATHED. Based on his latest trust and approval ratings, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano seems unaffected by all the controversies that hounded the Philippines' hosting of the 2019 SEA Games. Screenshot by Rappler

Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr even parroted Cayetano’s own messaging: that criticisms should be made only when the SEA Games was over.

“For us in the minority, even the Makabayan bloc, we decided to support the Speaker because it’s not for us or it’s not even for the politicians; it’s for the athletes. Let’s support the Speaker. Let’s support Phisgoc, support POC [Philippine Olympic committee president] Bambol Tolentino. We’re really going to investigate this, but let’s do it after the SEA Games,” Abante told Rappler. 

Cavite 4th District Representative Elpidio Barzaga Jr, president of the National Unity Party, went as far as crediting Cayetano’s high approval and trust ratings to the supposed “successful” hosting of the SEA Games.  

“It takes a ‘hardcore devotion’ to overturn the backlash and criticisms in the hosting of SEA Games,” Barzaga said in a statement. “Indeed, the sustained high ratings of Cayetano proved him worthy of the speakership post.”

Taking advantage of the lackluster Velasco

It is not surprising then that Cayetano and his allies have been floating the possibility of him serving a full 3-year term as Speaker and scrapping his term-sharing deal with Velasco. 

With his ratings soaring and his so-called “generosity” to lawmakers flowing, Cayetano has forced Velasco to recede to the background. The Marinduque congressman is now merely hoping the Speaker would honor their non-binding gentleman’s agreement. 

NO MORE ROOM FOR LORD? Still just speakership bets when this photo was taken on July 21, 2019, Lord Allan Velasco, Alan Peter Cayetano, and Martin Romualdez do the Duterte fist sign together as a 'show of unity.' Photo courtesy of Cayetano's staff

Some of Velasco’s own party mates in the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) are not too keen anymore for him to take over as Speaker by October 2020.

“Marginalized na si Cong Lord. He’s not part of the big moving and shaking in the House. Wala siyang fire!” said one PDP-Laban lawmaker who spoke to Rappler on condition of anonymity. (Cong Lord is marginalized. He’s not part of the big moving and shaking in the House. He doesn’t have fire!)

“He desperately needs the President’s endorsement. Because what’s in it for congressmen if he becomes the Speaker when we’re okay now? He has to convince us that it’s better off with him,” added the legislator. 

One thing is clear: the battle for the speakership is not yet over. Alan Peter Cayetano, once the unpopular choice for Speaker, knows this all too well and now wants to be the undisputed leader of the lower chamber. He has spent the last 5 months preparing the ground to make sure he wins the war. Will Cayetano’s charm offensive last him until 2022? –

TOP PHOTO: THE VICTOR. Alan Peter Cayetano addresses the House of Representatives for the first time after winning the election for Speaker on July 22, 2019. Photo by Lito Borras/Rappler

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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 or tweet @maracepeda.