year-end stories

How House lawmakers flexed their political muscle in 2023

Kaycee Valmonte

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How House lawmakers flexed their political muscle in 2023

LOWER HOUSE. The House of Representatives opens its second regular session on Monday morning, July 24, 2023.

Dwight de Leon/Rappler

'Our lawmakers have now shown themselves ready to punish opposing views,' Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility says of the SMNI debacle

MANILA, Philippines – In 2023, the lower chamber bared its teeth to provocateurs, portraying itself as a House ready to bite back at those who dare question the integrity of the institution and its leadership.

Political allies of the Marcos administration hold a supermajority at the House of Representatives and are not afraid to issue warnings or sanctions to those that cross the institution’s path.

“I am prepared to stand before anyone and vehemently defend our actions and decisions, even in the face of issues that threaten our institution’s integrity,” Speaker Martin Romualdez said in his speech during the opening of session on November 6.

This year, the House acknowledged public outrage over the confidential funds mess that hounded Vice President Sara Duterte, an ally of President Ferdinand Marcos, by taking action against her secret funds requests for 2024.

Rappler looks back at key events that gave House members opportunities to flex their political muscle in 2023.

Confidential funds fiasco

Requests for confidential funds made headlines during this year’s budget season amid the proposals of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Department of Education (DepEd) that asked for P500 million and P150 million, respectively.

Emboldened by the public asking for answers as well, opposition lawmakers zeroed in on Vice President Sara Duterte after the OVP was found spending P125 million in less than two weeks in 2022.

How House lawmakers flexed their political muscle in 2023

The secret funds were apparently not even granted by Congress to the OVP in 2022.

The Vice President also failed to specifically explain how her offices – including the DepEd – will make use of the fund that typically finances intelligence operations. “Education is intertwined with national security,” she would later say in an ambush interview without elaborating further.

Duterte resorted to personal attacks against lawmakers who questioned her P650-million spy funds request: “I do not respect Ms. Castro and Ms. [Risa] Hontiveros. I have no respect for them.”

How House lawmakers flexed their political muscle in 2023

In the end, the lower chamber did not grant Duterte’s confidential funds, instead reallocating it to government agencies on the forefront of protecting the West Philippine Sea. Duterte would later drop the P650-million request in Senate budget deliberations.

“The House was never lenient, nor did it favor anyone,” Romualdez said following the House decision to junk the Vice President’s confidential funds request for 2024. “The entire process was dedicated to uplifting the lives of our fellow citizens and staying true to the fundamental principles of the system of checks and balances in the government.”

Cutting a former president down to size

Following the House decision on the Vice President’s confidential funds request, former president Rodrigo Duterte took to a Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) program to express dismay over how the lower chamber treated his daughter’s confidential fund request. His sermon claimed that the House – an institution he was part of from 1998 to 2001 – was the “most rotten” in the Philippine government and even threatened to kill Castro.

Rodrigo also blamed the alleged 2028 political aspirations of Romualdez for the decision to strip the OVP and DepEd of confidential funds, which the Speaker had denied.

How House lawmakers flexed their political muscle in 2023

What happened next came as a surprise for many: Political party leaders of the lower chamber teamed up to call out the former chief executive. House Secretary General Reginald Velasco also set the record straight on claims that corruption is rampant at the chamber.

House members – even if they tried to not name Rodrigo during plenary – passed a resolution to “uphold the integrity” of the chamber and pledged continued support for its leadership once session reopened. Rodrigo’s known political allies also lost key positions after failing to sign the resolution, which was backed by the entire House leadership.

The shift in Rodrigo’s political influence then triggered an exodus of lawmakers from Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), moving to Romualdez-led Lakas–Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD).

Probing a fake news network

SMNI is not exactly ending the year on a high note.

In December, the network was slapped with suspensions from the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) and the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

This all started because the lower chamber started an investigation into the false report about the travel spending of Romualdez in late November. Laban Kasama ng Bayan hosts Jeffrey “Ka Eric” Celiz and Lorraine Badoy discussed on live television an unconfirmed report that the speaker supposedly spent P1.8 billion on official travel this year, when the Office of the House Speaker spent only P4.347 million.

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Both Celiz and Badoy were cited in contempt by lawmakers after they refused to answer questions during a House probe.

“To SMNI right now, again [you’re on] very, very thin ice,” Deputy Majority Leader David Suarez warned on December 5. Celiz and Badoy refused to name their Senate source during the investigation, repeatedly citing the Sotto law that protects journalists from the investigation, and the hours-long probe annoyed lawmakers.

The two, however, were released a week later right before the holidays over “humanitarian considerations.”

SMNI’s fate remains up in the air. Although clear violations were brought to light due to the House probe, some have raised concern over how it might set a dangerous precedent.

“The actions done by the lawmakers should send chills down libertarian spines. Our lawmakers have now shown themselves ready to punish opposing views,” the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) said in an editorial. – Rappler.com

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