By Butch Fernandez, Jovee Marie dela Cruz & Bernadette Nicolas, June 6 2019; Business Mirror
Image Credit to Philippine Daily Inquirer
As the curtains for the 17th Congress finally close after three years, marking the first half of the Duterte administration, the country has seen the enactment of only a dozen out of 28 key measures listed under the Common Legislative Agenda (CLA).
The CLA came from the legislative queue of the 39 measures identified as priority by both chambers of Congress and the 55 bills that fall under President Duterte’s legislative agenda.
Of the 12, two were signed into law by Duterte in 2017, seven in 2018 and three in just one month or February 2019.
The first two laws signed by the President were the Free Higher Education Act and the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN).
And despite being part of the CLA, the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act was vetoed by the President on Valentine’s Day. Malacañang said the measure was vetoed as it lacked vital safeguards and contains provisions that may violate the 1987 Constitution.
In comparison, the Senate has left behind an achievement of passing 464 bills that were enacted into law, some of which are landmark pieces of legislation that aim to uplift the lives of Filipinos.
The House of Representatives, on the other hand, has processed a total of 11,888 bills and resolutions measures.
Of these processed measures, a total of 383 were enacted into law, 120 of which were of national significance, 259 were local and 4 were joint resolutions.
THE 17th Senate’s scorecard of accomplishments and unfinished business is probably one of the best validations of Senate President Vicente Sotto III’s claim that, in the main, it is an independent body that nonetheless ensured passage of some of the most far-reaching reforms of the Duterte administration.
In the last 48 hours before adjourning, the Senate unanimously passed the measure further increasing the tobacco excise tax over and above what was provided in the TRAIN law, the first package of Duterte’s comprehensive tax reform program (CTRP). The measure was then transmitted to the House of Representatives, which adopted the Senate version as agreed on earlier in order to skirt calling a bicameral conference committee and thus ensuring timely passage of the bill.
The new tax hike, which adds P10 to the TRAIN-granted excise rates in the first year of implementation in 2020—then gradually rising with P5 additional till it reaches P60 in 2023—ensures the government can fill the funding gap for its ambitious Universal Health Care Act, also passed by the 17th Congress several months ago.
TO be sure, it’s not just the tobacco excise hike that the 17th Senate exited with.
Earlier, key legislations, especially in the economic realm, were enacted into law. Notable among these feathers in the legislators’ cap, all measures of transcendental impact, are: the Revised Corporation Code, the Rice Tariffication Law, the Ease of Doing Business (EODB) Act, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (Free College Act), Mental Health Act, Magna Carta of the Poor and the institutionalization of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) or conditional cash transfer scheme.
And of course, who can forget the TRAIN law, which the Department of Finance had worked hard to get the 17th Congress to pass, but which many blamed for the record surge in inflation for most of 2018.
Also among the 17th Congress’s accomplishments with far-reaching impact is the measure, passed by the Senate on third and final reading, seeking to establish the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA).
Senate Bill (SB) 1983, otherwise known as an Act Establishing the Philippine Space Development and Utilization Policy and Creating the Philippine Space Agency, was introduced by Sotto along with Senators Benigno Aquino IV, Lorna Regina B. Legarda and Juan Edgardo M. Angara. It was Aquino, however, who shepherded the bill as Science Committee chairman, amid skepticism that it was not worth spending money on a space program since the Philippines is such a “puny” player in this field.
At press time, meanwhile, among the key legislations still hanging is the Security of Tenure (SOT) bill, or popularly known as the “End of Endo” measure, which bans all forms of illegal contractualization.
FOR all the “done” items, though, certain critical measures were inevitably left behind for lack of material time in the 17th Senate.
Just before Congress reconvened last May 20 after a long break during the 2019 election period, the Senate leadership had listed the key reform measures it would give priority to in the final session days of the 17th Senate.
Topping this list, as pitched by Sotto, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto and Economic Affairs committee chief Sherwin T. Gatchalian, were the amendments to the Public Services Act and the Foreign Investments Act (FIA), which Gatchalian emphasized was urgently needed to make the Philippines a competitive investment site.
The amended Public Services Act, which Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo had championed in the House, was deemed necessary to spur investments in key industries once the new law provides a final definition of what “utilities” are. Such delineation would allow certain industries, like telecommunications, to be taken out of the restrictive list of sectors where the Constitution limits foreign equity to 40 percent.
Sotto also frontloaded in the final session days the SOT bill by Senator Joel Villanueva and the revisions to the Human Security Act, which would strengthen the hand of the State against terrorism. The latter, championed by Senator Panfilo Lacson, did not hurdle the legislative mill, however.
The SOT Bill is still pending enrollment as of May 31 after the House of Representatives adopted SB 1826 as an amendment to House Bill (HB) 6908. The President has since vowed to end the illegal employment scheme since assuming the presidency.
ALSO sidelined in the final days of the 17th Senate was the second tranche of the tax reform, or the Trabaho bill, revising the corporate income tax. The House had passed this on final reading late last year. But serious reservations by many sectors about the second part of the bill—the rationalization of fiscal incentives—caused it to languish at the committee level in the Senate.
Meanwhile, a pet legislation of the President—the restoration of mandatory ROTC training—did not make the deadline, as Malacañang Palace only certified it as urgent late Monday (June 3).
According to Sotto, these pieces of legislation—the Public Services Act, the FIA and the ROTC bill—will certainly be on the list of priority measures once the 18th Congress opens in late July.
Asked if they see easier sailing for these bills when refiled in the next Congress, Recto shared with the BusinessMirror what he deems is the logical sequence in tackling these key measures.
“Those bills will be discussed and debated in the next Congress. I prefer to discuss the Foreign Investments Act first, then retail trade liberalization second, and Public Service Act third,” Recto told the BusinessMirror. “There must be order in discussing these bills.”
Sotto agreed, saying: “Yes, the unpassed economic reform bills will be given priority in the next Congress,” and then added, “plus ROTC bill and anti-terrorism.”
FOR his part, Minority Leader Franklin Drilon touted the key roles played by members of his bloc in the 17th Senate, despite the tribulations that began with the detention of Sen. Leila de Lima.
Drilon, who had also worked hard to ensure that the Bangsamoro Basic law (BBL) would be constitutionally compliant and who helped propose the solution to the 2019 budget deadlock, listed the key legislations of minority senators.
He cited Aquino’s Free Tuition Act, Sen. Risa Hontiveros’s Mental Health Act, Sen. Francis Pangilinan’s Sagip Saka Act, Sen. Sonny Trillanes’s Magna Carta of the Poor, and Sen. De Lima’s 4Ps institutionalization.
“The 17th Congress has not been easy for the opposition. It is hard to be in the opposing side these days,” Drilon conceded in a statement a day after the adjournment.
“We saw our colleague [De Lima] detained. All of us in the minority were subjected to criticisms and attacks,” he added. “Despite all these, we soldiered on and remained focused on one goal: to get things done for the people,” says Drilon, who authored three major laws: Amendments to the Revised Penal Code, the Philippine Identification System Act, and the Revised Corporation Code of the Philippines.
THE 17th Senate, to be sure, was memorable not just for the many game-changing measures it passed, but also the headline-grabbing inquiries in aid of legislation.
Early on in its term, the 17th Senate was rocked by the allegations against de Lima, who was stripped of her chairmanship of the Justice and Human Rights committee as she started trotting out people who claimed to have knowledge of alleged human-rights violations by then-mayor Duterte in Davao.
De Lima was subsequently detained on the basis of several cases filed against her by her successor at the Department of Justice, Vitaliano Aguirre, for alleged involvement in the drug trade at the national penitentiary when she was DOJ secretary. The inquiries on illegal drugs took up a lot of the time and effort of Senate probers, with de Lima’s successor at the Justice and Human Rights panel, Sen. Richard Gordon, calling for dozens of hearings on corruption at the Bureau of Customs as highlighted by the agency’s failure to stop several cases of shabu smuggling from China.
House of Representatives
THE 17th Congress under the leadership of former speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez and current Speaker Arroyo has accomplished a lot with the passage of all legislative agenda of the administration.
On July 23, 2018, in what was supposed to be a usual State of the Nation Address of President Duterte, an unexpected turn of events changed the dynamics of the lower house—the sudden ouster of Alvarez and the election of Arroyo as his replacement
Arroyo was the first woman speaker of the lower chamber and for her short term as leader of the House, all the priority measures of the Duterte administration were rapidly approved.
Last Tuesday night, the House of Representatives adjourned sine die its regular session in the 17th Congress, with Arroyo highlighting the chamber’s “genuine milestones.”
Arroyo said many other priority bills of the President, including those not mentioned in his 2018 State of the Nation Address, were also passed.
ANOTHER accomplishment of the House is that it re-energized the Oversight Committees to untangle the procedural knots and ensure smooth implementation.
The Speaker said they held 31 oversight meetings on 24 matters.
“Among the accomplishments of these oversight meetings was the implementation of the titling of housing lots for a hundred thousand households. I thank the various committees which responded ably to my call for exercising our oversight mandate,” Arroyo said.
Majority Leader Fredenil H. Castro said Arroyo has assumed the leadership of the House to support the programs of the administration.
“Arroyo is unrelenting in her work and because of this exemplary working attitude the House has accomplished so much in terms of legislation; also in terms of improving the overall program and achievement of the government,” Castro said.
Deputy Speaker Sharon S. Garin of party-list AAMBIS-OWA said Arroyo always arrived on time and is very knowledgeable when attending committee hearings, forcing other lawmakers to do the same.
“[As a lawmaker] it makes you study more, you always prepare when you have a committee hearing, you have to be very professional [when you have discussions],” Garin said. “The way she works herself is a very good effect on the performance of each and every congressman and as a whole of the Congress; that’s why we are very successful [in the 17th Congress].”
FOR her part, Arroyo expressed confidence that the veterans and young blood in the lower chamber will make the future legislative process “very well.”
“One of the advantages of my being speaker of the House of Representatives now is that I have been able to expose to and been able to work with a lot of very young congressmen and see how they work and how they think,” she said.
“I am confident that when the time comes to take over the leadership of the country they will do very, very well. I think they’re good, competent and dedicated,” Arroyo added. “Being with them and working with them gives me great confidence in the future of our country.”
Minority Leader Danilo Suarez of Quezon has lauded both Alvarez’s and Arroyo’s leadership.
“I think [Arroyo] as well as Alvarez have both done very good because all the pet bills of the Palace were approved,” he said.
The only advantage of the Arroyo leadership, Suarez said, is that Arroyo can say no to the President.
“Also, in terms of output, we passed many bills under the leadership of Arroyo,” Suarez said.
Deputy Minority Leader Lito Atienza described the 17th Congress as a productive Congress.
“It was a productive Congress especially…when GMA took over. We became very, very productive and [were good] also in following the rules of the House. Under Arroyo, all House rules were followed—that satisfies my criteria of an effective leadership. Even the quorum question was entertained by her: ‘no quorum, no meeting’. It’s that simple,” Atienza said.
HOWEVER, the speedy approval of the measures under the Arroyo leadership shifted to slow gear during the approval and transmittal period of the 2019 national budget to Duterte.
The passage and transmittal of the 2019 budget was delayed due to a number of issues, including the alleged changes by the House leadership even after both chambers had ratified the bicameral conference committee report as well as the lump-sum funds of the senators.
With these insertions, Duterte decided to veto some of the items in the 2019 General Appropriations Act.
The President signed the 2019 budget only on April 15, vetoing P95.3 billion for “not being part of the President’s priority projects.”
However, Atienza appealed to the public not to blame the House leadership for the delayed passage of the national budget.
“Don’t blame [the lawmakers] for the delayed passage of the national budget. Arroyo discovered a lot of discrepancies and illegal fund allocations,” he added. “When she tried correcting it, the response was overwhelming. She discovered all irregularities and tried to stop it.”
DESPITE great difficulties, Arroyo said Congress came up with an enacted budget, avoiding the large problems that a re-enactment for the entire 2019 of the last budget would have created.
To avoid a reenacted budget, reelected Makati City Rep. Luis Campos Jr. said members of the next House of Representatives must prepare now their lists of priority bills for the 18th Congress.
He said the passage of the 2020 national budget should be No. 1 on their list, as he warned against a repeat of the “costly” 2019 budget crisis.
According to Campos, the incoming Congress must pass without delay the national budget for next year.
Campos said the first-quarter GDP expanded by 5.6 percent year-on-year, below the widely expected 6.0 percent, largely owing to the slower increase in public-sector spending.
He said the budget crisis also delayed the payout of the last installment of the salary increase for 1.3 million government employees, which “to some degree dampened consumer spending.”
Entering the race
WHILE the success of the passage of the Duterte administration’s priority bills lies on who will be the next Speaker of the House, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman urged political parties to let the supermajority coalition and the real minority or opposition join the speakership race in the House of Representatives.
Lagman said the parties belonging to the administration must ultimately field a common candidate for Speaker since all of the administration aspirants have vowed to pursue the legislative agenda of President Duterte.
“The example of the ruling PDP-Laban of choosing a single candidate for Speaker among its aspiring members should be followed by the other parties in the supermajority coalition,” he said.
According to Lagman, the unified choice for Speaker of the administration should face the candidate coming from the minority or opposition.
“This square-off will assure the emergence of a legitimate and authentic opposition leader unlike the charade in the 17th Congress where the Minority Leader was handpicked by the supermajority,” he added.
TO ensure checks and balances, Lagman said the 18th Congress must have a genuine minority leader.
He said a genuine minority leader can only be assured if he or she is neither a member nor a partisan of the administration nor handpicked by the ruling majority.
Party-list coalition President Mikee Romero of 1-Pacman said the party-list coalition—composed of at least 54 members—will vote as a bloc for the speakership race.
Romero decried the alleged bribe offer in the speakership race, which reportedly ballooned to P7 million for each congressman.
“We feel very, very insulted; our votes are not worth anything at this time. It is not worth any peso because our conscience will never bear such insult,” he said.
A candidate must secure a minimum 153 votes for him to win the speakership race. The lower chamber will be composed of 243 district and 59 party-list representatives in the 18th Congress.
Eyeing the lower chamber’s top post in the 18th Congress are Marinduque Rep. Lord Alan Velasco, Leyte Rep.-elect Martin Romualdez, Taguig Rep.-elect Alan Peter Cayetano, former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Pampanga Rep. Aurelio Gonzales.
More than satisfied
THERE are still 16 bills still pending in the CLA. However, the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office is more than satisfied with was achieved by the past Congress.
“With record-breaking Republic Acts that are ‘landmark legislations’ signed by the President in his first three years, we are satisfied by the rate things are going and are very positive that the 18th Congress will realize most, if not all, of the remaining legislative priorities of the Duterte administration,” PLLO Undersecretary for the House of Representatives Ryan Estevez told the BusinessMirror in an e-mail.
However, Estevez also attributed the delay in the passage of the measures to the “important and crucial effort of the senators in studying the bills further” and also the “lack of material time” in passing the bills.
“Most of the bills identified have already been passed at the House of Representatives and even certified as urgent by the President (like the last four certified bills including ROTC bill). The hurdle now is at the Senate,” Estevez said.
Moving forward to the 18th Congress, the PLLO vowed to push for more periodic and frequent Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) meetings to bridge the gap between the Congress and the Executive Department on issues addressed by pending bills.
Allies in both chambers
CHAIRED by the President, Ledac is the highest consultative and advisory body the President talks to on economic and development matters to integrate the legislative agenda with the national development plan.
“PLLO will also embark on more meetings with the legislators, their chiefs of staff and legislative staff to address issues and questions even before the filing of the bills so we can inform the legislators of the stand of the executive department on crucial and important issues,” he added.
Now that the administration has more allies in both Senate and House of Representatives, PLLO also expressed confidence that more measures will be passed in the coming Congress.
“We are very positive that the remaining legislative agenda of the Duterte administration will be tackled, discussed, and eventually passed by the 18th Congress, especially that we have more allies in both chambers,” Estevez said.
Republic Acts signed by President Rodrigo Duterte
• RA 10931 (Free Higher Education Act)
• RA 10963 (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion)
• RA 10968 (Philippine Qualifications Framework)
• RA 10969 (Free Irrigation Services Act)
• RA11032 (Ease of Doing Business Act)
• RA 11035 (Strengthening the Balik-Scientist Program)
• RA 11036 (National Mental Health Care Delivery System)
• RA 11055 (Unified National Identification System Act)
• RA 11058 (Strengthening Compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Standards)
• RA 11165 (Institutionalizing Telecommuting as an Alternative Work Arrangement for Employees in the Private Sector Act)
• RA 11199 (Social Security Act Amendments)
• RA 11203 (Rice Trade Liberalization Act)
• RA 11223 (Universal Healthcare Act)
• RA 11201 (Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development Act)
• RA 11215 (Integrated Cancer Control Program Act)
• RA 11166 (Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act)
• RA 11188 (Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Act)
• RA 11211 (The New Central Bank Act)
• RA 11285 (Institutionalizing Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act)