Saturday, November 27, 2004

Packing the House of Representatives

Packing the House of Representatives

Updated 01:05am (Mla time) Nov 27, 2004
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the November 27, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

A REGULAR correspondent, Paul R. Mortel, sent me a letter bewailing the tendency of the House of Representatives to create more congressional districts in addition to those now existing. He says that the present composition is far too large already, and the increase in the membership of that chamber would only add to the expenses of the public without corresponding benefit to them.

He speaks of the creation of three new districts in ParaƱaque City, Antipolo City and Bulacan province that he says was done "secretly" before it was reported by the media. He is disturbed by the plan to add another district in Negros Oriental province that, according to Representative Emilio Macias II, will mean "an additional amount for the province because every congressman is entitled to the so-called pork barrel." Talk about cynicism. Mortel says there is a similar plan to give another district to Marikina City that, I can only hope, is not for the same avaricious reason.

Some years ago, the municipality of Mandaluyong was converted into a city and because it had a population of more than 250,000 was automatically converted into a separate congressional district. This is the official justification for the creation of more similar units. If Congress does not exercise the necessary prudence, the House of Representatives will increase in size but not likely in wisdom or even only in usefulness.

The congressmen at present can hardly serve their constituents competently and it is their inefficiency that they are using for adding to their number. Their real reason is more devious. The truth is that dividing or creating new representative districts will make it easier for the incumbents to insure their reelection. They will have smaller areas to cover and fewer voters to woo or bribe. It is also a scheme to eliminate potential rivals in the old district by enabling them to run in the new district. My own city of ParaƱaque comprised only one district before, but we learned later that it had been divided into two. Our incumbent Representative Eduardo Zialcita did not have to campaign in the whole city as in 2001 but only in half of it when he sought reelection last May. Representative Roilo Golez ran and won in only the other half, and now we have to pay for two congressmen where before only one was enough. Was Zialcita so inadequate in representing the entire city that we had to elect Golez to assist him? Or was the new district intended to keep the peace between them and make them collaborators from their separate turfs instead of combatants for the original sole district?

The Constitution provides that the House of Representatives shall be composed of not more than 250 members but adds "unless otherwise provided by law." This maximum number includes the party-list members, of whom there are now 23, to sit with the 212 regular members chosen from the congressional districts. There are, therefore, no less than 235 congressmen in all who are supposed to represent the 86 million Filipinos composing our population.

Dividing the total population by the number of regular and party-list members of the House of Representatives, we have the quotient of only some 366,000 constituents per congressman. By contrast, the US House of Representatives has a membership of 435 for the total population of that country of more than 282 million. This means that each congressman in the United States is theoretically responsible for as many as about 648,300 constituents, compared to the much smaller ratio for our own legislators. They are nevertheless planning to further increase their membership even if the entire territory of the Philippines is even smaller than the 115.7-square-meter area of Omaha City in Nebraska. They couldn't care less.

The trouble with our legislators is that they think they can do anything as long as they are in power. This includes disdaining the spirit of the Constitution for their own selfish purposes. This kind of cupidity was denounced in the United States when Elbridge Gerry plotted to re-arrange his district by retaining only those areas where he was strong and removing those parts where he was weak. A colleague remarked on seeing the oddly shaped territory, "This looks to me like a salamander," to which another replied, "No, it looks like a gerrymander!"

Gerrymandering is prohibited in our Constitution, but not the division of districts to increase the incumbent congressmen's prospects of reelection. The original House of Representatives in 1987 consisted of only 200 regular members and four sector representatives, but that number has already been uselessly exceeded. More districts are now being planned that will be entitled to additional pork barrel allocations, as Macias has gleefully noted.

It's like adding more fat to an already bloated body.

Must we increase the membership of the House of Representatives simply because our population is uncontrollably burgeoning? Will the addition of new members automatically improve the mediocre quality and performance of this shameful body? Why not just abolish altogether this "lower House" (the "l" is not capitalized), and good riddance to an irredeemable disgrace?


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