Sunday Essay: Congressional measures

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

HOW do we know if our lawmakers are doing their jobs well? On one of his morning talk shows last week, Leo Lastimosa reported that the first four bills filed in the House of Representatives last Monday, July 1, 2019, were by Cebu City Rep. Raul del Mar.

But is the number of bills filed the best measure of legislative performance?

The number of bills that actually became law, against the total number of bills filed, might be a more informative gauge.

A key skill that we would want our lawmakers to have is the ability to marshal support for their proposals. Some effective mayors and other government executives who tried a term or two in the House of Representatives have performed in a way that can only be described as lackluster, if we’re being charitable. Local executives enjoy the advantage of speed. Lawmakers need sharper negotiation and persuasion skills to be effective, and those are skills long-term executives don’t always develop.

What other metrics might we use to evaluate our legislators? The ability to wangle positions in powerful committees like budget and public works is another, although let’s be realistic and admit that that’s partly a function of how loyal and valuable they are as allies of the real powers-that-be. Some lawmakers gain control over choice committees because of a combination of their own clout and experience. Some are placed in such committees as pawns of a more powerful executive.

I wanted to look at the bills our 10 lawmakers from Cebu City, Cebu Province and Lapu-Lapu City filed in their first week in office but the official site had yet to be updated as of Saturday, July 6. While waiting for that information to be made public, I read instead the list of the first 20 bills filed in the 17th Congress (2016-2019) and found that only five eventually became laws.

Among the five that made it were The Philippine Identification System, now Republic Act 11055, which took effect in August 2018. Not a single co-author was from Cebu. I wonder why. Maybe you have been more fortunate in your district, but as a constituent of the sixth district of Cebu Province, I am underwhelmed by the efforts district lawmakers after 2010 have made to consult people or at least inform them about the positions they’ve taken on our behalf.

Among the bills that were supposed to have been prioritized in the 17th Congress but did not make it were the restoration of the death penalty and the granting of emergency powers to President Rodrigo Duterte to address traffic congestion in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu. The death penalty bill sailed through the Lower House but died (or got killed) in the Senate. Emergency powers for the traffic crisis also gained the Lower House’s approval but never made it out of the Senate’s gridlock.

One metric we can measure our lawmakers’ performance by is the effort they extend to explain to constituents why they voted the way they did on an issue. I know that’s not a gut issue and more lawmakers in the House of Representatives would rather campaign on the basis of the number of kilometers they’ve arranged to have paved. But don’t you get curious about how they think?

In September 2017, for instance, 197 lawmakers in the Lower House voted in favor of the bill that sought to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression (known as the SOGIE bill). Eight of the 10 from Cebu voted in favor, which I thought was a happy surprise. Former congressman Benhur Salimbangon of the fourth district was present but did not vote, according to the official journal. Former congressman Red Durano was marked absent.

Attendance is one metric most lawmakers like to show off but that’s just table stakes. How did you vote? What measures did you take to ensure that your vote would be as representative as possible of your district or the most sensitive to your constituents’ needs? That’s one performance measure we need to figure out.


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