The 17th Congress of the Philippines adjourned last June 3, 2019 to give way to the new set of legislators who emerged victorious in the May 2019 elections. This transition from the 17th to the 18th Congress is yet another chapter in the long and colorful history of our legislature.

The first-ever Congress that the Philippines had was the Malolos Congress, a revolutionary congress convened by President Emilio Aguinaldo. It was responsible for the 1899 Philippine Constitution that was never really functional. When the Americans occupied the Philippines, the power to make laws resided in the Philippine Commission that existed from 1900 to 1907. The two Philippine Commissions were composed entirely of Americans, as they were supposed to “prepare” the Filipinos for independence.

A bicameral Philippine Legislature came into being in 1907, where the Philippine Commission served as the “Upper House” while the Philippine Assembly served as the “Lower House.” Members of the Philippine Assembly were Filipinos elected in the first- ever nationwide elections in 1907. Here we saw the rise of Sergio Osmeña Sr. as Speaker and Manuel L. Quezon as Majority Leader. Later on, they will figure prominently in the country’s political arena.

It was not until 1916 when the legislature became exclusively composed of Filipinos, with the Senate as Upper House and the House of Representatives as Lower House. Osmeña preferred the leadership of the House to that of the Senate, which went to Quezon. The latter held the position until he was elected President of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935.

Members of both chambers of Congress were elected through districts: two senators were elected for each of the twelve senatorial districts, while one member of the House was elected for each congressional district. From the ranks of these senators and congressmen, we see familiar names, many of which will be influential later on, such as Jose P. Laurel, Claro M. Recto, Elpidio Quirino, Hadji Butu, and Lope K. Santos.

Sergio Osmena Sr. and Manuel L. Quezon

The Commonwealth period legislative body was initially a unicameral one, but reverted to bicameral in 1940. The inauguration of the Philippine Republic in 1946 led to the birth of the first truly independent Congress, which we refer to as the First Congress of the independent era.

In the 1946 elections, 16 senators and 104 congressional representatives were elected. Unlike the previous setup where there were senatorial districts, senators were now elected at large or nationwide. The Liberal Party (LP) captured nine out of 16 seats, and the rest went to the Nacionalista Party (NP). In 1947, another senatorial election was conducted, with the LP and NP capturing six and two seats, respectively.

The First Congress passed more than 400 laws, including RA 53 or the Press Freedom Law; RA 229, an act that prohibited cockfighting, horse racing, and jai-alai on Rizal Day; RA 265, which established the Central Bank of the Philippines; RA 333, which moved the capital of the Philippines from Manila to Quezon City; and RA 386, the law that created the Philippine Civil Code.

The First Congress featured many prominent names that left a lasting legacy to the Philippine political arena. Following are some of them.

Senator Fernando Hofileña Lopez Sr., a member of the influential Lopez family of Iloilo who later on also served as three-term Vice President (once for Quirino and twice for Ferdinand Marcos). He was ABS-CBN chairman from 1986 to 1993.

Senator Ramon S. Diokno, father of Senator Jose W.
Diokno, also served as Justice of the Supreme Court.

Senator Carlos P. Garcia, later served as Vice President to Ramon Magsaysay and upon the latter’s death, became President.

Senator Vicente Y. Sotto, the grandfather of current Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, was a lawyer and authored the Freedom of the Press Law, also referred to as the Sotto Law.

Senator Geronima T. Pecson, the first woman senator of the country. She was also an educator who fought for Filipino women’s right to vote.

Batangas Third District Rep. Jose B. Laurel Jr., the son of President Jose P. Laurel. He served as Speaker of the House twice, during the presidencies of Ramon Magsaysay and Marcos.

Pampanga Rep. Luis M. Taruc, a prominent insurgent during the 1930s and leader of the Huk Rebellion in the 1940s. Although he was not allowed to take his seat in Congress, he continued fighting for the plight of the masses.

Zambales Rep. Ramon Magsaysay, who served as Quirino’s National Defense secretary before being elected as President in 1953.

Tayabas (now Quezon) Second District Rep. Tomas Morato, known better for being the first mayor of Quezon City.

Congress has gone through many travails in its long history. The first Congress itself had to wait until the end of World War II before resuming its functions. When martial law was declared, the new constitution drawn up in 1971 changed the bicameral Congress to the unicameral National Assembly, or the Batasang Pambansa. The Batasan had 200 members elected from different provinces and cities, as well as sectoral representatives and those chosen by the President himself from the members of the Cabinet.

After EDSA People Power I, the new government changed the country’s political landscape, abolishing the Batasang Pambansa, and drafted a new constitution. The bicameral system was revived, and sectoral representation was institutionalized through the party-list system. Among primary participants in the party-list elections are groups representing underrepresented sectors of society.

The 18th Congress is a completely different legislative body from its predecessors. It has the biggest membership of 24 senators and more than 300 representatives and has more powers to perform more checks and balances on the other co-equal branches of government.

Indeed, Congress plays a major role in our political life and politics plays an important role in the life of Congress. While we could only wonder what changes could happen later on, it is certain that the history of the Philippine Congress has featured illustrious men and women who changed the country’s political life, and will continue to do so for years to come. —JOHN LEE CANDELARIA


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