The dream for a people’s congress is on. Those who believe there is need to shake the status quo–not with arms but simply by signing up (you will find the sign-up link at the end of this long love letter)–may find it worth the time to continue reading…

Notes on the proposal for genuine people participation in government and the need for a People’s Congress

The system of representation in government

The 1987 Constitution, like the older versions that preceded it, provides for a system of representation in the form and structure of government. Section 1, Article 2, of that Constitution says: “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”

To carry out the democratic and republican agenda, three branches of government exist: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. The sovereign constituency, comprising of all citizens of the country, elects its representatives in Congress (House of Representatives and the Senate), which functions as legislature, as well as the President and Vice President. The President controls the executive department and, with support from subordinates, it is under his or her command that commission or omission of all activities of government falling under the executive department is undertaken. The President also appoints members of the judiciary.

Through the operations of these basic structures of government, the people, as the body that comprises the sovereign State, expects the protection and promotion of their interests.

The executive and legislative structures that exist at the national level also exist, with a slightly different configuration, at the provincial, city, and municipal levels.

At the barangay level (the smallest political unit), policy making is done at the barangay assembly or through people’s representatives that constitute local policy-making bodies such as development councils, peace and order councils, etc. and the Sangguniang Barangay.

Book 3, Chapters 3 and 4 of the Local Government Code of 1991, provides for the powers and duties of the Punong Barangay and Sangguniang Barangay.

Portions of Section 389, Chapter 3, state:

    “Chief Executive: Powers, Duties, and Functions. - (a) The Punong Barangay, as the chief executive of the Barangay government, shall exercise such powers and perform such duties and functions, as provided by this Code and other laws.
(b) For efficient, effective and economical governance, the purpose of which is the general welfare of the Barangay and its inhabitants pursuant to Section 16 of this Code, the Punong Barangay shall:
    (a) Enforce all laws and ordinances which are applicable within the Barangay;
    (b) Negotiate, enter into, and sign contracts for and in behalf of the Barangay, upon authorization of the Sangguniang Barangay;
    (c) Call and preside over the sessions of the Sangguniang Barangay and the Barangay assembly, and vote only to break a tie;”

Portions of Section 391, Chapter 4, state:

“Powers, Duties, and Functions. - (a) The Sangguniang Barangay, as the legislative body of the Barangay, shall:
a) Enact ordinances as may be necessary to discharge the responsibilities conferred upon it by law or ordinance and to promote the general welfare of the inhabitants therein;
b) Enact annual and supplemental budgets in accordance with the provisions of this Code;
c) Submit to the Sangguniang Panlungsod or Sangguniang Bayan such suggestions or recommendations as it may see fit for the improvement of the Barangay or for the welfare of the inhabitants thereof;
d) Authorize the Punong Barangay to enter into contracts in behalf of the Barangay, subject to the provisions of this Code;”

Unlike policy and law making at the national level for which people’s representatives are responsible, let it be emphasized that the people can directly participate in collective decision making at the barangay level through the barangay assembly. Chapter 6, Book 3, of the Code is worth citing in full:

    SECTION 397. Composition; Meetings. - (a) There shall be a Barangay assembly composed of all persons who are actual residents of the Barangay for at least six (6) months, fifteen (15) years of age or over, citizens of the Philippines, and duly registered in the list of Barangay assembly members.
(b) The Barangay assembly shall meet at least twice a year to hear and discuss the semestral report of the Sangguniang Barangay concerning its activities and finances as well as problems affecting the Barangay. Its meetings shall be held upon call of the Punong Barangay or of at least four (4) members of the Sangguniang Barangay, or upon written petition of at least five percent (5%) of the assembly members.
(c) No meeting of the Barangay assembly shall take place unless a written notice is given one (1) week prior to the meeting except on matters involving public safety or security, in which case notice within a reasonable time shall be sufficient. The Punong Barangay, or in his absence, the Sangguniang Barangay member acting as Punong Barangay, or any assembly member selected during the meeting, shall act as presiding officer in all the meetings of the assembly. The Barangay secretary, or in his absence, any member designated by the presiding officer to act as secretary, shall discharge the duties of secretary of the Barangay assembly.

    SECTION 398. Powers of the Barangay Assembly. - The Barangay assembly shall:
(a) Initiate legislative processes by recommending to the Sangguniang Barangay the adoption of measures for the welfare of the Barangay and the city or municipality concerned;
(b) Decide on the adoption of initiative as a legal process whereby the registered voters of the Barangay may directly propose, enact, or amend any ordinance; and
(c) Hear and pass upon the semestral report of the Sangguniang Barangay concerning its activities and finances.

Indications of failure of representation in government

Over the years, flaws in the way government represents the people, especially the poor, have reached desperately frustrating levels. The checks and balances that are supposed to spring from having established co-equal branches of government are at best inhibited. The resulting lack of accountability among duty bearers has become manifest. Corruption in government continues to get in the way of the poor being recipients of social and economic services and of the just application of laws.

Below are examples of obvious flaws in the country’s existing system of representation in government. They pervade in all branches of government, including local government units (LGUs).

The Legislature

  • Congress failed to pass the 2019 budget in time because of haggling by its members for their share in “pork barrel funds.” The 2020 budget was also marred by lewd jockeying for the front row where favored congressional districts get more funding that the less favored ones.
  • The 2021 budget of the national government Senator Panfilo Lacson on the budget: continuing appropriation for obviously over-priced infrastructure projects.
  • Reports about members of the House of Representatives suggesting that their choice for Speaker will be prompted by President Rodrigo Duterte’s body language mean, in my opinion, that they do not have a gut of their own. A visceral extension of presidential clout, Congress — like an appendix whose usefulness medical science has yet to determine — is a costly prop, an embarrassment which the democratic ideal would wish excised.
  • One of the basic functions of Congress is to act as a middleman. Citizen A pays taxes. Congress allocates the money to buy fertilizer for Citizen B, who is a farmer. Five — heck, make it 10 — elections later, Citizen B has yet to receive a ganta of fertilizer. It used to be a simple process. Until something happened to a politician who lost millions in a casino and called Mr. Secretary first thing the next morning to say he needed a “project” (source: Philippine Senate archives).

The Judiciary

  • The separate court cases of Jinggoy Estrada and Junjun Binay have been on trial for ages. But the judges ruled on them only after the voters dashed their lingering hope for a lift in their political careers. Public workers like these judges are freeloaders; they thrive in a culture that free-rides on private initiative and community action.

The Executive

  • The poor often do not need help to survive. In the countryside, they break their backs raising crops, putting in long hours of work in farmlands which may not belong to them but to landlords. In urban areas, the better-off workers get by on rock-bottom wages; the worse off informal settlers eke out a daily living from the dump, some of them building homes under bridges. In coastal towns, fishermen brave stormy days and nights to provide for their families. All the poor need from government is a fair enforcement of laws where farmers are freed from price manipulations conspired by traders, where the urban poor are protected from unjust evictions and human rights breaches, and where the fisherfolk are allowed to freely fish within a territory owned by a sovereign of which they are constituents, without being threatened with physical harm by foreign aggressors. If the government cannot provide them that minimum amount of fairness, what use do the poor have for government?
  • That economic forces have been, for ages now, robbing farmers of their just due is to say what I think is obvious to many. But the means to rescue them from that kind of bondage are not as clear as the ends, overhyped they may be. Often they are high in promise, but low on delivery.
  • Worse, government often has been found to ameliorate the conditions of the poor with sham packages of goodies that on the surface look good, but underneath are wicked devices that merely trick the taxpayer to keep paying. The coco levy, katas ng pork barrel, biyayang Napoles and the fertilizer scam, among many other examples, blended so well with our everyday lives that we hardly noticed a robbery had been going on for decades. In that sense, one can say that responding to the plight of the poor has been a convenient way for those in power to make money.
  • An LGU in Bulacan provides for its constituents relief goods consisting of 20,000 pieces of dressed chicken at P1,233 per piece (total cost: P 24.5 million), 10,000 sacks of rice at P 5,300 per sack (total cost: P 53 million), and 10,000 boxes of sardines at P 3,562.50 per box (total cost: P 35.6 million). Any fool would know that he has been robbed of millions in exchange for a free lunch. A graft-free market price for these products averages at P120- P200 per kilo for dressed chicken, P1,500- P2,500 per 50-kilo sack of rice, and P1,000- P1500 per box of sardines. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas reported an average inflation rate of 2.38 for the last five months.
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