‘Groundhog Day’ in Congress

Of all the films in all the cable channels in all the world, they had to show the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day inside the members’ lounge of the Philippine House of Representatives.

Seeing the character Phil Connors enduring an ‘eternal recurrence’ in the movie made me realize that it’s an apt metaphor for Congress politics.

Imagine being stuck in a similar time loop but the setting is a Congress session day. In my case, it was a surreal experience that lasted four years. What’s a typical day of a congressman trapped in a Groundhog Day?

Let’s begin with an annoying ride along Commonwealth where trapo tarpaulins and self-serving MMDA signages offend your sensibilities.

Turning right before Sandiganbayan, one could quickly observe the stark contrast between the spacious Batasan complex, the House of millionaires, and the densely populated urban poor communities surrounding it.

You enter the VIP parking littered with gas guzzlers and luxury vehicles.

You walk through the south wing lobby swarming with official and unofficial transactions.

An old porker greets you in the hallway but forgets your name. A young dynast you unintentionally ignored because he is rarely seen at work.

Overworked House employees trying their best to be friendly, amateur lobbyists struggling to deliver an elevator pitch, professional seekers of financial aid, bright college contemporaries working for reactionary politicians, activists-turned office consultants and ‘operators’, barangay leaders on tour, Gloria Arroyo, Imelda Marcos.

Inside the office room: a pile of documents waiting to be signed and discarded, solicitation letters, invitations, constituency primers, newsletters, magazines, Senate reports, Malacanang publications, agency notices, House memos. A member informing colleagues that he wants his name to be called in a particular way.

Some computer work to be done before the start of committee hearings. Quick scan of email, monitoring of online news, responding to querries, reacting to headlines, formulating attention-grabbing sound bites – all these while grappling with slow Internet connection and a centralized sound system broadcasting songs that do not really inspire productivity.

At nine in the morning, you leave your room to attend a committee hearing. But what greeted you was an almost empty meeting room. You were asked to help with the proceedings for lack of quorum. Apparently, other members were in another ‘important’ hearing wherein the agenda is controversial enough to merit media attention and Palace intervention.

The meeting was uneventful made worse by some nonsensical banter between members, a flurry of sexist jokes, boring presentations, and long-winding debates which could only end up with the chair creating a technical working group so that the real work will be done by others.

Lunch is a time to prepare for the plenary session. A speech that needs to be finalized, a bill ready for filing or interpellation, a consultation session with advocates.

But this is also when colleagues or the office of the House Speaker often schedule an informal caucus. You are confident that you can do all these things, and you tried to juggle priorities but it is always unsuccessful.

You chose to attend an extended lunch meeting but you instantly regret this decision for the lost time which could have been better used to write, read, or talk to constituents. Instead, you are hostaged in a room dominated by politicians who incessantly talk about their good deeds and heroic exploits. You excused yourself by going to the restroom and you see a confused-looking man in a Barong Tagalog. You are reminded that even if you feel alienated from what you are doing, the world sees you as one of the men and women in the other room. You went back to perform your role and pretended to be engrossed in the conversation while waiting for the 4 p.m. session.

Congress life officially begins at four in the afternoon. But the session is suspended the moment it is opened in order to wait for tardy members. If the plenary hall is quiet, the members’ lounge is abuzz with serious and hilarious conversations. This is where members mix food and politics. The ‘other plenary’ where unfinished debates are negotiated, off-the-record transactions are settled, and a place to rest without being seen by the public. Interesting topics are discussed here such as Malacanang intrigues, basketball games, BGC parties, budget glitches, and election tactics. On this particular day you were seated with three landlords who were talking about a flooding disaster in South America and its possible impact on the prices of agricultural exports. You wanted to reply but you were uncertain whether they were referring to the calamity victims or the higher profits they will earn from their haciendas.

Meanwhile, at the plenary, the privilege hour has started. You were third on the list of speakers that day. You and your team spent two weeks preparing for the speech. You invited student leaders to listen in the gallery. To ease your anxiety, you paced the session floor exchanging brief greetings with members and getting news updates from reporters near the plenary lobby.

Suddenly, the privilege hour was suspended to give way for the passage of certain bills and resolutions. The measures under deliberation were swiftly approved by the body even if warm bodies at the plenary were clearly not adequate to constitute a quorum. But members mysteriously filled the floor when a bill certified as a Palace priority was announced by the presiding officer. It took almost half an hour to finish counting the ayes and nayes for this particular bill because the minority decided to play its part by raising procedural questions about it.

The privilege hour was resumed but the members present on the floor also quickly disappeared. By the time you were recognized to speak, it was already past seven in the evening and there were only a handful of members who were still in attendance.

You delivered your speech which was subsequently entered into the records, and then another speaker was called. After a few minutes the session was adjourned.

You thanked the students who waited for your speech. You gave a media interview about an issue not related to what transpired in the House. You talked to some civil society groups which plan to organize an exhibit in the House.

You decided to take a brief stop at the lounge before heading back to your room. A colleague at your table was remarking about how democracy is working despite the flaws in the system. That Congress is the embodiment of this democracy where dissenting views are heard and the people are allowed to participate in the proceedings. You barely heard his other words because you were already watching Groundhog Day on TV.

You felt a terrible sense of deja vu. This already happened: you sitting in the lounge musing about life in Congress, the plenary session enabling a Palace agenda, the informal caucuses in aid of inter-party power struggles, the supposedly inclusive committee hearings, the dynasties you met throughout the day, Gloria Arroyo, Imelda Marcos. It was 2012 but you were sure it was like 2009.

In the film, it was love that allowed Phil Connors to escape the time loop. Love also holds the key to survive a ‘Groundhog Day’ in Congress. Love in the form of knowledge that what matters most is the movement of people working for social transformation outside the halls of Congress. That the time loop in the bureaucracy is a self-preservation mechanism of the ruling faction in control of the oppressive system. That there is an alternative to the banality of everyday politics in Congress, that a superior political movement is necessary and possible, that imagining a new reality must start by being woke and awake in working towards a progressive future in society. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: mongpalatino@gmail.com

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