House death penalty vote: Conscience or committee
(Last of two parts)
When the death penalty bill was put to a vote in the House of Representatives early this month, Sorsogon Rep. Evelina Escudero had to make a choice between conscience and committee.
Escudero chose conscience, giving up her leadership of the basic education and culture committee.
She was among the 54 lawmakers who voted “no” to House Bill No. 4727, which would impose life sentence to death on drug-related offenses.
“I have my own convictions and probably they were trying to convince (me), but … it’s my conscience,” she said.
Her political party, Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), allowed members to vote according to their conscience, she pointed out.
NPC is a member of the supermajority coalition in the House.
Escudero said her position on the death penalty was something she could not compromise.
“Other measures that the House leadership would bring to Congress probably can be discussed, but not this death penalty,” she said.
Days later, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez made good on his threat to remove antideath penalty lawmakers from their committee and leadership positions—not sparing even former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was ousted as Deputy Speaker for voting “no” to HB 4727.
Escudero shrugged off Alvarez’s decision.
“[W]e accept whatever the Speaker would decide, what to do with us,” she said.
Besides the NPC, the members of the House coalition are the National Unity Party, Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, a party-list bloc, and even the erstwhile ruling Liberal Party (LP).
In a memorandum of agreement signed by the parties before the start of the Duterte administration, the “coalition for change” vowed to support the House leadership’s legislative agenda.
Majority Leader Rudy Fariñas believed it was the conscience of the lawmakers that convinced them to vote for the death penalty.
Among the 217 lawmakers who voted for the measure, 204 were from the majority bloc, or those who voted for Alvarez for the speakership.
Several lawmakers softened their stance on the death penalty when it was limited to drug-related offenses.
At least 80 of the 217 prodeath lawmakers came from the ruling Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), whose membership rose from just three in the previous Congress to more than 90 now in the 292-strong chamber.
Some lawmakers maintained that their vote was based on conscience, not on their wish to keep the chairmanship of committees.
“As chair, I did not feel the pressure [from the leadership] anyway,” said Cagayan Rep. Randolph Ting, head of the committee on labor and employment.
“Maybe like in all strategies, it’s just politics,” he added.
Although the LP took a stance against the death penalty, its members were allowed to vote based on their conscience.
Fifteen LP members voted “no” to the death penalty. Another 15 voted yes, led by Marikina Rep. Romero Quimbo, LP’s highest official in the 17th Congress, who stands to lose his deputy speaker post if he votes no.
“It’s a principled approval to the proposed bill. No pressure whatsoever,” said Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo, chair of the Metro Manila development committee.
Castelo said he approved of the death penalty for drug offenses, which he considered the root of most heinous crimes.
“I based my decision on what my conscience dictated, taking into account only the best interests of my constituents,” he said.
Two other LP lawmakers hid behind the supposed results of a survey of their constituents.
“I am voting for death penalty based on my survey in my district, not my party,” North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco said in a text message.
Catamco chairs the indigenous cultural communities and indigenous peoples committee.
Bataan Rep. Geraldine Roman, a devout Catholic, defied the Church’s position against the death penalty bill, thus reaping a backlash from her young supporters online.
Roman gained a following among the youth as the first transgender lawmaker.
Although she was against the death penalty, Roman said her vote was based on the conscience of her constituents.
And there was politics.
“I am part of the world of politics. And politics is compromise. As much as I would want to follow my conscience to vote against the death penalty, I have the interests of my constituents in Bataan in mind,” Roman said at a forum in Ateneo de Manila University.
In the supermajority, there were “rogue” ones.
Forty-three of the 54 antideath penalty lawmakers were from the majority bloc.
Ten have committee and leadership positions. They were removed from their posts for voting against the bill.
Batanes Rep. Henedina Abad and Diwa Rep. Emmeline Aglipay-Villar were absent from the voting, but they still lost their posts.
In a television interview, Speaker Alvarez said he had to implement his policy of stripping lawmakers of their chairmanship of committees for voting against the death penalty bill.
“What I’m asking for is just respect my right to lay down the policy as Speaker of the House of Representatives,” he said.
Alvarez has incurred criticisms for his “strongman rule” in the House.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, a vocal death penalty critic, slammed Alvarez for his “tyrannical” rule, calling the leadership “bullies” and “puppets.”
Lagman said the number of majority lawmakers against the death penalty measure was proof of the “cracks” within the administration coalition.
“There is a visible crack in the supermajority because most of those who voted against the death penalty came from the supermajority,” Lagman told the Inquirer.
All the seven members of the independent minority bloc voted against the bill.
It would have been expected of another bloc of the minority, led by Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, to spearhead the opposition against the bill.
But the bloc vowed to be a constructive partner of the majority.
In fact, Suarez is a coauthor of the death penalty bill.
The Suarez minority bloc delivered 12 of the 217 votes for the death penalty.
Only four voted against the bill—the most vocal of whom were Kabayan Rep. Harry Roque and Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza.
Suarez said the minority had no agreement with the majority that the former would help boost the numbers for the death penalty.
“They did not even ask us,” he said.
There was also no bloc decision to vote for or against the bill. “The number (of minority members voting ‘yes’) is not that big. It’s a very close division,” he said.
Lagman said the supermajority was intimidated by the leadership into following its whims.
“That was still crucial because there was still the threat, the intimidation, which prevailed over most members of the supermajority,” he said.
Reacting to Lagman branding the House leadership as bullies, Majority Leader Fariñas said it was the minority that bullied the majority into subverting the will of the people’s representatives.
“The people want the death penalty reimposed … but a minor group against it has been bullying the majority from expressing its will,” he said. “It was high time for the majority to stand up to bullying tactics of a few members!”
For the leadership, the majority rule is how democracy in the legislature is all about.
After all, it is still a numbers game.