"While much has been done, the President cannot rest."
It was an overflow crowd in the floor of the House of Representatives last Monday.
Watching from the section where sat sons and daughters, mothers even of senators and congressmen along with provincial governors, I wondered how some 500 well-dressed (though for some, rather gaudily), well-coiffed and bejeweled members of the political elite gathered in the floor would eventually fit in once the President enters the session hall.
It was a rather long wait, for the President arrived some 55 minutes beyond the appointed time of four in the afternoon, likely because the inclement weather and low cloud cover prevented him from boarding the helicopter for the Batasan earlier.
And so for some two hours from the time I arrived at the Batasan, we had nothing but the floor spectacle of beso–besos and hand-shaking to witness in an effort to while away the time.
The SONA director, Joyce Bernal, would have been most kind to those waiting in the hall, if she just beamed the performance of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra on the two giant screens flanking the stage of the session hall. The PPO was at the left side of the Batasan’s grand lobby, playing popular classics, both Filipino and foreign, a first in SONA history if memory serves me right.
Instead, we had to regale ourselves watching the who’s who among the political elite. The overflow crowd was composed of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of legislators past and present. Ah, the ever-present, the never- extinguished dynasties that characterize the politics of this country!
There were young and new faces, recognized by us in the gallery only when their pater familiae would introduce the neophytes to their former colleagues. Of course the paters are now governors or city mayors or whatever, so that the dynastic line is preserved, perhaps, in another nine years to stage a comeback in the HoR when their offspring’s term limits are reached.
It is a tradition in both House and Senate that even former members are allowed to enter the session hall and observe. And in almost all the SONAs I have attended, the former members make a grand show in the annual political spectacle, resplendent in newly-tailored barongs for the men and long gowns for the ladies.
But I have never seen this many. The dynasties have proliferated, and I thought only the poor multiply their progeny. How the former members were able to sit themselves even as the session hall provided just about 330 seats for the conjoined Senate and House when the President entered, I could not imagine. Of course the Batasan staff provided seats at the north and south flanks of the hall, but surely that was not enough for the dynasts who sashayed into the SONA.
One former congressman managed to sit himself in the gallery reserved for the former presidents, the vice president and former speakers of the House, plus the Chief Justice. And I do not for the life of me recall if he was ever as distinguished.
That center gallery was so packed that some foreign excellencies had to stand until somehow the Batasan staff managed to squeeze them in along with cabinet members.
The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra performance would have been a welcome treat for the audience if they had not been limited to playing at the foyer. Maybe next year, whoever PCOO hires as SONA director, instead of using two giant screens blanked out for the longest time, can do this.
The President was clearly in a good mood, his spirits buoyed by the most recent poll surveys that limited his disapproval numbers to a mere 3 percent. And he was most gracious to the lady Vice President, even if she was likely part of the 3 percent.
After the hour-and-a-half speech, double the expected delivery time of his 19-page prepared address because of his usual extemporaneous and off-the-cuff statements, he even gamely sang at the lobby with the PPO, and afterward, an impromptu press conference, where he virtually gave up on the systemic change of federalism during his term.
He intentionally blurred out the expletives directed at drugs and the corrupt, even if the message came loud and clear. In jest, he “wished” the dreaded great earthquake over Metro Manila would happen right then and there, with the epicenter, as he claimed a psychic predicted, right there at the Batasan. The congressmen in the audience nervously laughed along sportingly.
His statements about the West Philippine Sea were not really new, though he rightly pronounced that the same Unclos agreement that his detractors keep touting actually provide for shared fishing rights among claimant countries, something that we wrote about two weeks ago in this space.
He reiterated the need for National Land Use policy legislation which the landowners and realtors in past Congresses since Cory never passed. We can only pray that the President uses his considerable political will to break through the shackles of self-interest that have prevented passage of this truly meaningful change.
His support for the return of mandatory military training, while resisted by some sectors, is another reform for the future of our next generations. We can only hope that this time, ROTC becomes truly relevant, imbued with lessons in patriotism and nationalism, and not confined to the “march and parade dress” laced with corrupt practices that characterized the degeneration of this worthy program.
His appeal to the lawmakers to pass the second tranche of the Comprehensive Tax Reform policy did not elicit the applause that met other proposals, but there is truly a need to set our tax system right. Compromises may be made during the deliberations, especially in balancing the fears of investors against the long-term and systemic benefits of the same.
The President has three more years to his term, and while much has been done, he cannot rest. Neither should all of us.