Here’s what awaits the 18th Congress

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The President’s priority bills, impeachment bids and the fate of the pro-Duterte coalition — these are just some of the things that await the 18th Congress that opens on Monday. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 20) — With President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies securing a supermajority in both houses of the bicameral Congress, his administration’s priority measures are expected to get through the legislative mill faster.

But before they get to work on legislation, the two congressional chambers first have to pick who their leader would be.

For the Senate, it seems clear that Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III will reprise his role as its leader as a majority of senators have expressed their support for his continuing leadership. He had faced the threat of being replaced by Senator Cynthia Villar over disagreements on committee chairmanships.

But until the week before the opening of Congress, Sotto admitted that there is still a small percentage of committee chairmanships which have not been ironed out. Whether this is enough to shake Sotto off the Senate presidency remains to be seen on the first day of the 18th Congress.

An even larger shadow of uncertainty is cast over the House, even if Duterte had publicly intervened in the selection of the next Speaker.

Duterte has picked two lawmakers for Speaker, with them splitting the three-year term of the top House leader. According to the President, Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano would sit as Speaker for 15 months, followed by Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Jay Velasco in the following 21 months.

But rumors of a coup hum loudly in the House, with no less than the President’s son, Davao City 1st District Rep. Paolo Duterte, hinting at this. His father, however, has dismissed this as “wishful thinking.”

It also remains to be seen if Cayetano, should he get elected as Speaker, honors the term-sharing agreement.

Lawmakers, however, believe that the House will heed the President’s wishes.

“We’re pretty much set for a smooth opening on Monday,” Albay 2nd District Rep. Joey Salceda told CNN Philippines.

Erstwhile speakership aspirants have already agreed to chair their preferred committees, Salceda said. He said Velasco will return to his post as House energy committee chair, while Davao City 3rd District Rep. Isidro Ungab, who was endorsed by Paolo and his sister Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio for Speaker, will again head the House appropriations committee.

Also as pronounced by the President, Leyte 1st District Rep. Martin Romualdez will become House majority leader.

But Capiz 2nd District Rep. Fredenil Castro cautioned that everything is still tentative.

“In Congress, you know, nobody’s a Speaker, nobody’s an official of the House of Representatives unless and until he is elected,” Castro said.

Congressional panels

After they pick their top leaders, lawmakers will vote for committee chairs and members. Typically, arrangements among parties have already been made as to who gets to chair and who become members of these panels.

In the Senate, some lawmakers are still jockeying to chair the Education and Public Services committees. Senators, however, are largely averse to chairing the Ways and Means committee, which handles tax measures, but Sotto said Senator Pia Cayetano has agreed to head this panel.

Some committees that appear more interesting than others are the ones that lead deliberations on the budget, taxes, public order, national security, foreign relations, constitutional amendments, education, justice, accountability of public officers, elections and public services.

It is from these panels that the administration’s priority legislation — like the second package of its tax reform program, the reimposition of the death penalty, the revival of the mandatory Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and Charter change (Cha-cha) — would come out.

Some of these panels may also hear hot button issues like the government’s war on drugs, the Duterte administration’s ties with China and the West Philippine Sea.

They may also conduct probes on alleged wrongdoings of government officials. One panel stands out in this regard — the House Justice committee. This panel is tasked to hear impeachment complaints against top officials like the President and Vice President Leni Robredo.

Both Duterte and Robredo have been warned of impeachment complaints in the upcoming Congress. The President has been told that he could be impeached for his fishing deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, while the Vice President has been warned that she could be booted out of office for backing the UN probe into the human rights situation in the country and her alleged hand in the “Ang Totoong Narcolist” videos.

Whether these possible impeach bids prosper even before it reaches the House Justice panel is another question.

“If ever there is an impeachment [against Duterte,] it will not even reach the committee level. It will not even be heard,” University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Franco told CNN Philippines.

Franco said an impeachment bid against Robredo is more plausible, but would not look good for the administration. She added that the House would also risk wasting political capital in pursuing yet another impeachment complaint against a critic of the administration.

READ: Sereno on House panel vote: I knew the numbers were not in my favor

Eyes are also on the House Appropriations and Senate Finance panels, especially after the 2019 budget was delayed for four months due to a squabble among lawmakers over allegations of anomalous insertions in the spending bill.

Also worth mentioning are the House Legislative Franchises and Senate Public Service committees, which would be the first to deliberate on bills that would renew the franchise of ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcast networks in the country.

The TV network’s franchise will expire next year and it may be forced to close if it again fails to secure a fresh 25-year franchise from a Congress dominated by Duterte allies. The TV network has been under fire from the President, who has threatened to veto its franchise, due to its supposed failure to air his campaign ad.

Rubber stamp?

The President’s two picks for Speaker have vowed to shepherd his legislative priorities in the House, while several senators have adopted some of his pet bills as their priorities.

Historically, the House is the chamber of Congress which is more willing to bend to the will of the President, while the Senate is able to maintain a good degree of independence from the executive branch.

But the domination of pro-Duterte lawmakers in both chambers have raised some concerns that Congress would be turned into Duterte’s rubber stamp.

READ: Rubber stamps? Duterte allies promise Senate independence

The left-leaning Makabayan bloc, which has traditionally been part of the opposition, only has six members in the House. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, is thinking of joining the supermajority, but whether this would push through following the charges the police slapped against its leaders and stalwarts, including Robredo, remains to be seen.

Liberal Party congressmen, however, say that “regardless of the context here in the House of Representatives, we will stand by our values and principles. We will stand firm behind the truth.”

Aside from them, the House is almost completely composed of allies of Duterte.

In the Senate, the opposition has lost two voices, with Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino failing to get reelected and Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV having to step down after finishing his second consecutive term. Senator Leila de Lima is still detained on drug charges, shrinking the minority on the floor to just three — Senators Franklin Drilon, Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan and Risa Hontiveros.

While the opposition shrank in the Senate, the majority bloc expanded with even more allies of the President.

Nine senators backed by the regional Hugpong ng Pagbabago party of the President’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, were elected in the May polls. Among them are four from the President’s party, three of which—Senators Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, Christopher “Bong” Go and Francis Tolentino—were appointees of the President.

Franco said the President can exert some influence on the Senate through Go, his longtime aide. She added that the former special assistant to Duterte can even be considered the President’s “mole” in the upper house.

Assurances from lawmakers that they will maintain their independence has not quashed qualms of a rubber stamp Congress, especially in the face of Duterte’s renewed push for Cha-cha, even while dropping his party’s advocacy for a shift to a federal form of government.

READ: Duterte: Change charter now to avert coup

"I'm really sure [Cha-cha will pass,] with supermajority in the Senate, [President Rodrigo Duterte's] 87 percent approval rating, and a Duterte super coalition in the House, I think the people better be more participative and vigilant,” Salceda said.

But support for Cha-cha would largely depend on the proposed process of amending the Constitution and on the proposed amendments or revisions.

The Senate minority bloc stands pat in its position that the Constitution should only be changed through a constitutional convention, where a new body is formed and new representatives are elected whose sole purpose is to propose and vote on changes to the Charter.

In the 17th Congress, it was proposed that Congress instead convene into a constituent assembly, where lawmakers would be the ones who would propose and vote on amendments and revisions to the Constitution. But this did not sit well with the Senate, as the 23-member body feared they would be outnumbered by around 300 congressmen should they vote jointly.

The upper chamber did not relent despite the feverish push for Cha-cha then, with the Senate even threatening its members with expulsion if they attended a House-led constituent assembly.

If this time Congress agrees on a mode of changing the Constitution, they would now dwell on proposed amendments to it.

“That has to be clarified, at least in the State of the Nation Address,” Franco said. “Kasi depende kung anong version [of Cha-cha,] doon din mabubuo kung ano ‘yung suporta outside of the House and the Senate.”

[Translation: That has to be clarified, at least in the State of the Nation Address. The support for Cha-cha outside of the House and the Senate would depend on what version is being pushed.]

AKO BICOL party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin told CNN Philippines that Cha-cha would likely pass in the 18th Congress if this is limited to easing restrictions on foreign capital.

But even this would be met with stiff opposition by progressive lawmakers, who want to retain the country’s protectionist economic policies.

Other priority legislation of Duterte are also not guaranteed a swift and smooth passage in Congress even if it is dominated by his allies, Franco said.

“There are pending legislation that may be tackled in this Congress that has also a very big coalition that will sort of advocate against these bills, ‘di ba. Halimbawa ‘yung death penalty for certain crimes, tapos ‘yung [lowering of the age of] criminal responsibility, ang laki ng constituency nito, including the Church,” she said.

[Translation: There are pending legislation that may tackled in this Congress that has also a very big coalition that will sort of advocate against these bills, right? For example, the death penalty for certain crimes, and then the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility, these have a large constituency including the Church.]

The revival of the death penalty and the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility were both passed by the House in the 17th Congress, but lost steam at the Senate. This was also the fate of Cha-cha, the second package of the administration’s tax reform program and the return of mandatory ROTC.

But now, with more Duterte allies in the Senate, Sotto has expressed optimism that returning the death penalty and lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility would clear the chamber. Senator Sherwin “Win” Gatchalian also sees a swift passage of the mandatory ROTC bill this time around.

Specter of Sara

With Duterte allies dominating the midterm polls, they have further consolidated power in the halls of Congress.

But this is nothing new. Almost all midterm elections after the 1986 People Power Revolution saw administration-backed candidates dominating the polls. The only exception to this was in 2007, when the opposition emerged as the big winner in the polls, which was held at a time when public opinion on then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo further soured.

The coalition of Duterte’s allies in the House have gone as far as calling themselves the “Diehard Duterte Supermajority” — a revision of the acronym “DDS” which stood for “Diehard Duterte Supporters” and Duterte’s alleged vigilante group “Davao Death Squad.”

But history also tells us that administration coalitions fizzle out in the last three years of a president’s term as this marks the start of defections to other political camps in preparation for the next presidential election.

Franco, however, pointed out that this may not be the case this time around.

“The good thing about the Duterte strategy is that he fielded his daughter as a potential presidentiable in 2022. Whether it’s going to happen or not, the mere fact that it’s being talked about, parang [it’s like] it serves as a hedge against people who will go against Duterte,” she said.

Franco sees the coalition sticking together as long as a Duterte-Carpio presidential bid is possible.

Her father has said in speeches that he has warned Duterte-Carpio from running for president, while the Davao City mayor herself has denied any plans for higher office.

But Duterte-Carpio has also managed to go around the country as part of her regional party’s campaign sorties for the midterm polls. Despite only being a mayor, her endorsement has been sought by party-lists, senatorial candidates and was even prodded to endorse a House Speaker.

With what Franco called the “specter of Sara” keeping the coalition intact, she said a massive corruption scandal could be among the things that can break this up, similar to what happened during the Estrada and Arroyo administrations.

While surveys show that the administration’s pivot to China and its response to the West Philippine Sea issue is increasingly important to Filipinos, this may not be enough to shatter the Duterte coalition.

Malayo siya sa bituka. [It’s far from the gut,]” Franco said.

CNN Philippines Digital Producer Robert Vergara contributed to this report.