Philippine Congress, content creator was also published by The Manila Times on 24 May 2023.
The late Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr. once proposed the “three C’s”—short for Competence, Courage, Character—as criteria for electing people’s representatives in government.
But that proposal hardly resonates. Voters, election results show, must have their own preferences. A look at the members of congress today, for example, will suggest that voters are perhaps guided by another set of “C’s”, namely: (1) being fed up with politics (rationalized as “whoever gets elected runs same corrupt government, anyway”), they approach electoral processes with cynicism (bordering contempt); (2) because they hardly care, what comes to mind—which means, more often than not, celebrities and popular media personalities—is good enough; and (3) popularity has nothing to do with the candidate’s competence and, worse, may even have the effect of hiding his or her criminal records. To test the third criterion, we can ask: how many of currently sitting elected officials have been indicted—some even convicted—for breaking the law?
And yet, as these elected officials get down to work, the broader segment of the constituency would seem to vindicate the voters’ choices. For example, a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station (SWS) in December 2022 showed that the Senate and the House received net satisfaction ratings of +68 percent and +56 percent, respectively. This is the first time in years that both institutions got high ratings. Except for stretches in 2012 and 2016-2018, their combined average net ratings hovered below 30 percent since 1988.
What is congress doing now—something that we did not see then—to impress the public? Senate President Migz Zubiri’s has been quoted as saying that “team effort” made the Senate productive. Last year, the Senate bills that progressed to become a law includes (1) the SIM registration Act, (2) the law that moved the Sangguniang Kabataan and Barangay elections from December 2022 to October 2023, (3) the grant of Philippine citizenship to basketball players Justin Brownlee, and (4) the city charter for Carmona, Cavite. We may also add the Annual Appropriations Act which, as the title of the law indicates, Congress passes into law every year.
That’s one law in every two and a half months. In 2022, Congress (excluding both Senate and House electoral tribunals and the Commission on Appointments) had a total budget of Php29.6 billion. Taxpayers have thus spent Php7 billion for each law.
And for that Congress got good grades. But I’m not impressed. While it is hard to compare the quality of legislative outputs—say in terms of national significance and long-term positive impact—especially under varying social contexts, I do not think today’s Congress has outperformed its predecessors. For example, when he was a senator, Pimentel principally authored what had been widely considered as landmark pieces of legislation. I refer to the Local Government Code of 1991, Cooperative Code of the Philippines, the law creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the People’s Small-Scale Mining Act. He also co-authored the Generic Drugs Act and the law establishing the Philippine Police under a Reorganized Department of Interior and Local Government; he tried—but failed—to legislate the total log ban in the country for 25 years.
I therefore doubt if performance has something to do with approval ratings, or if approval ratings follow performance. It must be something else and, with the current crop of senators, it is not hard to see.
Although the number of celebrities becoming politicians has grown over the years, never in the country’s history has the public been awed as they are now by the star-power attraction that is coming from the present Senate. At least 9 of 24 senators (37 percent) are either media, TV, or movie personalities.
National legislators would have no need for celebrities to advertise their work. That’s the good news.
(An indication of how the senators connect with the public can be shown by the number of views that the Senate’s YouTube channel has generated. From 15 August 2022 to 16 May 2023, videos of committee meetings [where most of legislative work happens] generated a total of 2.1 million views. This is much higher than the 993K video views [less the 1.4 million views generated by the Blue Ribbon Committee hearings on the Pharmally scandal] generated by the same channel over a similar span of time [23 Jun 2021 to 21 June 2022] when the Senate was less star-studded (with 5 celebrities among its members).
The bad news is that there is doubt as to the value of the work that is being advertised. While celebrities enhance form, they do not necessarily add substance to the quality of inputs as well as to the efficiency and effectiveness of the legislative process. It is not only about cost (a law that costs 7 billion to enact is outrageous, especially for a single-use intervention like the one postponing a local election), it is more on the quality of legislative outputs, which must be measured in terms of how well the sovereign public—the people—is being represented. In the aim and application of laws, do the poor count? Do they establish a viable method to address inequities, corrupt practices that hurt the poor, and possible conflicts with vested interests?
We have long legislative processes but short on outputs that matter. The congressional probe on the Pharmally scandal unearthed facts that warranted the prosecution of cheaters, or at least introduce new laws to fill persisting gaps in government procurement. But I do not know of any tangible result that came out of that long-winding investigation.
We have a congress that is neither competent nor courageous, but one that is built for showmanship, a content creator for today’s social media platforms.