OF TREES AND FOREST
I was a member of the House of Representatives for nine years, from 1992 to 2001. I was always been a proud member of the lower chamber especially during the 11th Congress which I had the honor of leading as speaker from July 27, 1998 to November 13, 2000. I was proud of our legislative output and how we collectively faced the challenges of history and proved that we were really the People’s House.
I was very proud to serve in the historic chamber of the Philippine Congress. I consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to walk its august chambers and be part of its history. For all the flak Congress gets from the public cynical about anything that has anything to do with politics or government, the legislative branch is an important part of our democracy and, for the most part, has done its job in history as the protector of the people’s will.
The precursor of the House of Representatives was the Philippine Assembly which was inaugurated on October 16, 1907—113 years ago. Prior to this, the Philippine Commission whose members were appointed by the US president with the consent of the US Senate served as the sole legislative body in the country. The Philippine Assembly therefore was significant because its members were elected by qualified electors in their respective representative districts into which the country was divided. From 1907 to 1916, the Philippine Assembly (which became the lower house) and the Philippine Commission (which functioned as the senate) served the legislative functions of government.
The first national election for the 80-seat representative body was held on July 30, 1907. There were 104,996 qualified and registered voters while the number of those who actually voted was 98,251. Our very own Nacionalista Party which advocated complete and full independence from the Americans participated in this historic elections together with the Partido Nacional Progresista and other minor parties. The Nacionalistas won the biggest number of seats and eventually had two of its prominent members installed as the leadership of the chamber— Sergio Osmeña as speaker and Manuel L. Quezon as majority floor leader. These two Nacionalista stalwarts would later become the president (Quezon) and vice president (Osmeña) of the Filipino Commonwealth government in 1935.
The First Philippine Assembly—in essence, the very first House of Representatives—served an important purpose in our history. It served as the conduit between a country under colonial rule to a country that would become independent and free. The Jones Law later abolished the Philippine Commission and the First Philippine Legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives was inaugurated in 1916.
Of course, the 1907 elections were not really democratic in the truest sense since qualified voters were limited to males at least 23 years old but it was an important first step towards sovereign and democratic rule. The Philippine Assembly was the embodiment of the Filipinos’ aspirations for greater political participation and their demand for self-government. It was a powerful argument against those who believe that Filipinos were incapable of self-rule.
Filipinos have every right to criticize corrupt and inefficient politicians—that is what public opinion and elections are for. But we need to separate the individuals from the institutions. Politicians who occupy political posts come and go but the institutions remain. This is also very important for politicians to remember—you need to make sure that your actions will not damage the institution you are representing.
Having served and having led both Houses of Congress, I have the utmost respect for the role played by these democratic institutions. In my mind, they are the bulwark of our democracy.