Government News Analysis

Call for Congress cops

House of Representatives Majority Floor Leader, Rodolfo “Rudy” Fariñas

Apparently, members of the Philippine Congress don’t have enough privileges. They’re waited on hand and foot as they loll in their chairs during debates and hearings; they use the floors of both chambers to build their status as political celebrities, selling their own particular brand of snake oil to a nationwide TV audience; they’re exempted from arrest or prosecution for traffic offences, provided penalties for those don’t exceed six years; they can commit practically any defamation they choose in their chambers and enjoy total impunity. And for all that they get paid PHP117,086 a month and have access to almost unlimited expenses.

But that’s still not enough for one of Congress’ leading lights – House of Representatives Majority Floor Leader, Rodolfo “Rudy” Fariñas (photo). He’s now proposing they have a dedicated police force placed at their disposal.

To be known as the Philippine Legislative Police (PLP), among its functions, if Fariñas gets his way, will be to protect legislators when they conduct duties – such as consulting constituents – outside their offices. He complains that Congress lacks manpower to safeguard its members.

In other words – although no numbers have been mentioned at this stage – what he’s proposing is that the Philippine Congress has its own private army.

You could argue that there’s already up to 100 of these already operating in the country (the official figure is 76) – many of them in the pay of politicians and the clans that support them – so what’s one more? It’s also not unusual for congressmen to employ private security; bodyguards and the like – so why not get the state to foot the bill, if it doesn’t already?

Of course there’s a precedent for what Fariñas is proposing – and, of course, it’s an American one. US congressfolk have precisely the sort of protection he has in mind. The United States Capitol Police (USCP) is charged with protecting all members of the US Congress – and not just in Washington DC where the Congress resides, but right across the continental US and its overseas territories.

The PLP won’t just look after the members’ personal safety; it will keep their families safe as well – in fact all relatives down to the second degree of consanguinity, if it’s determined their lives are threatened. It will also protect Congress property, maintain peace and order in all its premises; coordinate with other law-enforcement agencies to gather intelligence on anything that threatens the legislative branch, its members and their kin. In all these areas, its proposed functions closely mirror those of the USCP.

Additionally, the PLP will be empowered to serve warrants and subpoenas on people of interest to Congress when holding special hearings. In other words, in all things Congress, it will be a full-fledged enforcement agency assuming a role equivalent to the Philippine National Police (PNP) which currently performs most of these duties.

And that’s very much the point of the Fariñas plan. Congress cops will be a law-enforcement body in their own right. They’ll be independent of the PNP and the Philippine Army – although, according to the proposal, the governing PLP Board will be headed by a retired member of the police or military top brass.

In effect then, this is a quite separate police force. It’ll be styled on the PNP as far as ranks, salaries, benefit and retirement packages are concerned; but it’ll have its own uniform and will be directly answerable to Congress – as opposed to the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the PNP’s overlord.

All that smacks of territorialism; empire building even. But it also strongly suggests that the Majority Floor Leader doesn’t have much confidence in the national police force where congressional matters are concerned. Well, after the sacking, 13 days ago, of Metro Manila’s entire Caloocan City police force, following the killing of two teenagers and the burglary of a pensioner’s home by its men, perhaps he has a point.

We’ve not seen any estimate of what all this will cost, however; maybe no one’s done the sums yet. But given the scope of the PLP’s brief and given the fact that there are 297 members of the House of Representatives and a further 24 members of the Senate – the vast majority of whom are married with kids and have relatives down to the second degree of consanguinity – the manpower requirements are considerable.

Add to that the costs of training this force, and equipping it with weapons, vehicles and support and its likely to be a very large bill. Just to give a very rough ballpark idea of what’s involved, the USCP employs more than 2,200 officers and its budget last year was US$410 million (PHP20.84 billion). All that was to protect a Congress that comprises 100 senators and 441 House representatives.

This year the entire PNP is operating on a budget of PHP111.8 billion; an increase of PHP22 billion from the previous year. It would have liked more but budgetary constraints prevented further funding – despite the spiraling costs from the war on drugs and the fight against crime.

Earlier this month, the country’s top cop, PNP Director-General, Ronald dela Rosa, made a plea to Congress – to approve an increased budget next year of PHP131.5 billion. If that doesn’t happen, he warned, the PNP may as well pull down the shutters.

The question then is, where would the money come from for a brand new police force? And, of course, the other question is, can Congress appropriate money for its own police while denying the national force the money it needs?

Fariñas, however, is determined to put his personal stamp on this Congress. He’s authoritarian, no-nonsense and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In some ways these are commendable traits when dealing with an ill-disciplined crowd like the House. But perhaps he wants to win over their hearts as well.

One week ago he reminded the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the capital’s main administration, to accord lawmakers with immunity whenever they commit minor traffic violations. By championing such privileges, maybe he believes he can win the members’ loyalty. Certainly, with some that’s definitely possible. But he’s missing the bigger picture.

And that’s the court of public opinion. Filipinos have little respect for politicians as it is – in fact, that’s the reason why the former Mayor of Davao City is the country’s current president. The public sees politicians as pampered, elitist, indolent, self-serving and arrogant and above all, out of touch with the people they’re supposed to serve.

So when Fariñas puts the needs of precious congressmen and women ahead of the needs of the people who elected them – after all, they’d also like a police force; preferably one that’s not corrupt to the core; one that they can trust – he further alienates the people from the political class.

That said, he could be given a certain amount of leeway. He’s worked hard and conscientiously for President Rodrigo Duterte in a number of areas – not least in galvanising the House to give its overwhelming endorsement to the death-penalty bill back in March. For Duterte this is a priority piece of legislation and Fariñas certainly delivered.

Certainly he seems committed to a ‘Congress First’ policy of his own. Furthermore, gaining public approval and winning popularity contests don’t seem to be what drives him. Back in June Fariñas was declared persona non grata by the legislature of Ilocos Norte, his home province – for which he represents its 1st District in the House – meaning he’s unwelcome there.

He’d initiated enquiries into the alleged misappropriation of tobacco funds resulting in six Ilocos government employees being placed in custody by the House. Ilocos Norte’s popular governor, Imee Marcos, eldest daughter of former president Ferdinand E. Marcos, has also been summoned to appear before a House committee investigating this issue.

With that bit of background, perhaps we could be forgiven for thinking that Fariñas might have a personal stake in the creation of a police force that would protect Congress members when they go to meet their constituents. In any event, given the size of this initiative in terms of both costs and logistics, it’s hard to see it gaining much traction across both chambers of Congress. And we’re fairly sure there’ll be very little appetite for a Philippine Legislative Police force anywhere else. After all, this is a police force which will only benefit members of Congress and their families, yet the bill for it will be picked up by the taxpayers.

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