Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

I was a congressman for four years (2009-2013) which equaled the number of my undergraduate years at UP Diliman (1996-2000). When asked about my two-term stint in Congress, I often claim that it’s like college but not quite like college. Of course it’s a joke since my college life was many times more memorable than the years I spent in Congress.

But there are other reasons for comparing Congress to college. For example, both are important albeit imperfect institutions in society. Both are asserting to be indicators of modern democracy even if their default function is to reproduce the existing social order. And both are habitually prone to all kinds of scandals and rumors such as plagiarized speeches, sex tapes, and other perversions.

Looking back, college was more rigorous in enforcing discipline. A student who missed classes for six times was automatically dropped from the rolls. If he was late for three times already, it will be counted as an absence. In contrast, have you ever heard of a legislator who was expelled or even suspended for being a notorious no-show in the plenary sessions and committee hearings? A congressman, and especially a senator, can be scandalously late in a meeting without being reprimanded by his peers. He can be detained in a hospital or special cell, he can extend his overseas vacation, and he can choose not to leave his hacienda or resort island without being removed from his job.

During our time, a student with a regular 15-unit load had to attend classes for at least four times a week, or five if he was an ROTC cadet. He must spend (or waste) at least four hours of his life everyday listening to lectures which were often enlightening and interesting but also sometimes frustratingly boring and nonsensical. However, it was always fun because you’re in the company of fellow dreamers and curious learners – all of whom are possessed with raging hormones. In Congress, your ‘classmates’ already have aging hormones and diabolical dreams.

Kidding aside, in college you interact with geeks, conos, promdis, fratmen, the religious, activists, the crazies, and other young people from different class and social backgrounds. In Congress, you will still meet these people but many of them have already mutated into warlords, despotic landlords, and other dark lords. In college you willingly lose your innocence; in Congress you must struggle hard to preserve your innocence.

Compared to the daily lectures in college, Congress is averse to the idea of a five-day work week. Congress holds official sessions from Mondays to Wednesdays only and they start at 4pm, although formal deliberations happen around 5pm. Listening to plenary debates is an option since the presiding officer usually does not mind if House members are busy texting, surfing the net, or playing bejeweled on the plenary floor.

Sessions last for two to three hours. Before adjournment, more than half of your colleagues have already left the Batasan complex.

It’s odd too that members of Congress are not required to attend the Monday morning flag ceremony which is a mandatory activity for millions of civil service workers across the country.

Congress cannot complain of overwork because it has numerous session breaks in a year (unlike most city councils which only take a break during the Holy Week and the Christmas season). The Congress calendar actually reminds me of the college school calendar. In college we have the first semester, semestral break, second semester, and the summer classes. Similarly, Congress has a first semester (last week of July – October), three-week sembreak, second semester (November – March), and a summer session (May – first week of June). But Congress seems more serious in celebrating the Christmas spirit by holding a month-long vacation after the second week of December.

As a life experience, college trumps Congress in almost everything. Well, except in food tripping since Congress has an exclusive south lounge where a buffet-like service is available to all House members. It’s not Viking’s but it’s also not a typical college canteen. Here’s the menu on February 2, 2010: cream of mushroom soup, pasta with bolognese pinoy style or roast vegetable and tuna, southern fried chicken, steamed buttered corn in cob, tacos with cheese tomato salsa, sour cream, beef, roast beef panini sandwich, cheese puff, banana coffee cake, sweetened banana.

No wonder the lounge is sometimes referred to as the ‘other plenary’ where members prefer to socialize and discuss politics while indulging in an afternoon gastronomic delight.

After a toxic day, a college student can relax by watching movies. The campus film center screens award-winning Hollywood movies, indie flicks, and notable foreign films. A congressman can relax too by watching movies…for free. He can use his MTRCB card as a free pass in any movie theater, including 3D and Imax theaters, and it’s good for two people.

It is almost impossible for a student to earn a college diploma without submitting several research papers. Many courses, in fact, require students to write and finish a thesis. These papers have to be original or at least they must appear to be properly written. In Congress, it is possible for legislators to end their full term without introducing new pieces of legislation. All they have to do is to refile archived bills and resolutions or they can simply co-author the popular and even trivial measures of their colleagues.

Unlike a student who must conduct some library work to produce a term paper, a congressman has the luxury of doing almost nothing to fill up his legislative record. He can tap the House secretariat to draft his legislative measures or he can link up with lobby groups which are always ready with one-size-fits-all proposals. Despite these options, some are still unabashedly non-productive and non-performing. They are too focused on the parochial. But beware of these politicians who shun national advocacies because they are susceptible to pork politics.

Meanwhile, if there are academic whores in college, the same kind of creatures also proliferate in Congress. They needlessly and incessantly worship the leadership skills of the Speaker and other designated leaders of the House. They are ready to become the pathetic mercenaries of the ruling party in order to tweak the opposition. They feel they are part of the First Family who feel slighted every time the president is criticized. Their canine devotion to the president is disgustingly freaky.

Look how these porksters recently banded together to assure the president of their support even if the latter has been consistently usurping the ‘power of the purse’ of Congress. Damn the independence of the institution. Damn the separation of powers. Damn accountability. Damn decency. The generous president who controls the national treasury must not be impeached.

And speaking of the president, he is the counterpart of the college bully. But if the school bully is ostracized, the president-bully is glorified. His political agenda is accepted without question, his priority concerns become the urgent matters in Congress, and his budget bill is passed without amendments.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare college to Congress (apologies to all higher education institutions and the hardworking Congress secretariat). But at a time when the dominant policy perspective is to reduce public subsidies for tertiary schools, we should also rethink the wisdom of allocating huge sums of taxpayers’ money to an institution which is incapable and even hostile to the idea of reviewing and reorienting its social and political function.

Abolish college and society will suffer. Meanwhile, Congress will remain a democratic trapping as long as it stubbornly clings to a moribund tradition. In the meantime, hope lies elsewhere. Outside the Batasan, the people’s congress is keeping democracy alive.

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