A tougher, more abrasive House
“I’m not a bully,” he says with a smirk. “Bullies threaten people, but I don’t make threats. I do what I say.”
The past year has seen the rise of Pantaleon Alvarez from one of the obscure characters in the Duterte administration to one of the most colorful and outrageous. Some might add: its most dangerous.
Like no other Speaker before him, the Davao del Norte representative is transforming the House of Representatives into a tougher, more abrasive version of itself. He has upended expectations and challenged the limits of what a congressman can say or do.
Impeach the VP, the CJ
Without batting an eye, he speaks of impeaching Vice President Leni Robredo and Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
He has stirred a hornet’s nest by proposing to extend martial law in Mindanao until 2022.
He has sacked House leaders, including former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for voting against the death penalty.
He has warned of dissolving the Court of Appeals.
He has slapped graft charges against his billionaire friend, Davao del Norte Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr., over a land deal.
He has ordered six Ilocos Norte officials incarcerated and pushed their governor, Imee Marcos, into a corner.
To all this, his bosom buddy, President Duterte, has turned a blind eye.
“I can say it straight: Not once has he called me for anything he wants from Congress. Honestly. Swear to God,” Alvarez tells the Inquirer one Saturday in his office.
The President’s hands-off policy has given Alvarez unparalleled influence—as the leader of the House and the supermajority coalition, secretary general of the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban party and, above all, a member of Mr. Duterte’s inner circle.
Detractors say power has gone to his head. He’s been called all sorts of names, from the President’s attack dog to a petty tyrant.
Detained Sen. Leila de Lima has slammed his “gangster-type” leadership.
Discipline in the House
Other critics like Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat Jr., an opposition lawmaker, surmise that Alvarez may be acting as a lightning rod to deflect criticisms and protect the President, “who should be shielded from controversy as our leader.”
Baguilat takes issue with Alvarez’s authoritative leadership style and cautions him to be more prudent in expressing political views that might alienate House factions.
But he praises Alvarez for cracking the whip on 293 House members over attendance.
“Kudos, though, to the Speaker and his leadership for being able to instill discipline in the quorum and [penalize the] tardiness of [congressmen],” he says.
Alvarez says one thing distinguishes him from previous Speakers: He is not afraid to make enemies and step on other people’s toes.
“The leadership before didn’t like confrontations,” he says. “Sorry to say, but if your leader is sensitive to public opinion, he will be careful. If you have ambitions for a national position, you have to be careful.”
In his case, he claims there’s no need: “I don’t intend to stay long [in public office]. I want to retire with the President.”
Struggling with legislation
For all the Speaker’s political bravado, however, and despite the acumen and experience of his trusted lieutenant, Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, the House in the 17th Congress has struggled with the business of legislation.
The House has enacted none of the legislative priorities identified by Alvarez at the start of his term: the death penalty bill, the switch to federalism through constitutional revision, and the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility.
These are the same bills aggressively pushed by Mr. Duterte, to no avail.
As of July, only five new laws have been signed: the 2017 budget, the postponement of barangay elections, franchise extensions for Smart Communications and GMA-7, and the inclusion of casinos in the Anti-Money Laundering Act.
It’s a dismal score but it does not quite reflect the House’s performance.
Over the last 12 months, the House passed 210 bills, six of which are awaiting the President’s signature, including measures extending passport and driver’s license validity, giving free tuition in state universities, providing for free WiFi in public spaces, and requiring hospitals to accept patients without a deposit.
The House also has approved on third reading the first tax reform package, which still needs the Senate’s concurrence, along with 180 other bills.
Once a bill is out of the House’s hands, Alvarez says, “it’s not our problem anymore.”
In the big priorities, progress has been slow.
In March, after much wrangling and compromise, the House approved a watered-down version of the death penalty bill, which would allow the state to execute drug offenders.
The Senate, however, is lukewarm to the measure.
Rights advocates derailed the bill lowering the age of criminal responsibility, which was amended to retain 15 years as the discernment age, not 9 as originally proposed.
On federalism, the House is waiting for Malacañang to form a constitutional commission that will draft a new Constitution for approval by Congress sitting as a constituent assembly.
If the executive dallies, Alvarez says, the House may create the commission itself in January.
3 controversial bills
In coming months, Alvarez plans to write three bills that will amend the Family Code.
The first would allow couples to have absolute separation of individual properties, instead of treating these as conjugal by default.
The second would allow civil unions for live-in partners—including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender—entitling them to rights to inherit and to adopt children, among other things.
The third bill is just as controversial: it would allow dissolution of marriage.
Under Alvarez’s proposal, spouses can split legally simply on grounds of “unhappiness,” doing away with messy and costly annulment.
In March, in the midst of an embarrassing public feud with Floirendo, Alvarez confessed to an extramarital affair and being estranged from his wife, Emelita.
Besides family bills, Alvarez hopes to make sweeping reforms in the grant of franchises to various sectors, from public transport to gaming and mining.
Congress has delegated such franchising authority to agencies like the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.
He wants those powers back.
Other important pieces of legislation, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings, such as the freedom of information and antidiscrimination bills.
Alvarez has plenty on his plate in the weeks ahead, but it seems politics will not take a backseat to lawmaking: The second regular session promises to be “more colorful” as he builds cases to oust Robredo and Sereno.
Relationship with President
“I don’t like to quarrel with anyone. But I have to defend the institution I represent,” he says. “If you want to do your job well, you will naturally hurt someone. The bottom line is our duty to the nation, not our duty to our friends.”
It’s a different story, though, when your closest buddy is the President.
Alvarez says his relationship with Mr. Duterte has not changed since a year ago. As usual, they talk of “light moments and mischief” in private, keeping work strictly off topic, he says.
Is the President happy with his performance? “I don’t know if he’s happy with me as the Speaker. But what I know is he’s not happy to be the President.”
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