17th Congress not as productive as predecessors in its first session
Editor’s Note: Starting June 25, the Inquirer will run on its print, online, and social media platforms a series of stories, reports and commentaries on the socioeconomic impact – positive and negative – that President Duterte has made in his first year in office. The articles will focus on how the former Davao City mayor has coped with the challenges of the presidency in five major areas that Filipinos consider most important in their lives: peace and order, traffic, economy, governance and foreign policy. This evaluation of the administration’s achievements and shortcomings will take into account what Mr. Duterte had promised to do during last year’s presidential campaign, his June 30 inaugural speech and his July 25 State of the Nation Address.
At the start of the Duterte administration, the 17th Congress constituted itself as a super majority of lawmakers who allied themselves as staunch supporters of the newly elected president.
Days before the first regular session began, lawmakers started jumping ship to the new ruling party, the Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), decimating the erstwhile Liberal Party and establishing a rainbow supermajority coalition.
In its first regular session from July 25, 2016 to May 31, 2017, Congress appeared to still have a long way to go to be at par in terms of performance compared to the past first regular sessions.
The first regular session of the 17th Congress appeared less impressive in terms of actual output. Of the over 5,800 bills lawmakers filed during the period, only four were enacted into law – the 2017 national budget, the postponement of the barangay and Sanggunian Kabataan elections, and two franchise extensions.
The performance is less productive than during the first regular sessions of the 15th and 16th Congresses.
In the session covering 2010 to 2011, the 15th Congress was able to pass eight laws – the 2011 budget, the GOCC Governance Act, Mandatory Infants and Children Health Immunization Act of. 2011, and the extension of the implementation of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act, to name a few.
In the session covering 2013 and 2014, the 16th Congress was able to pass eight laws – among these, the 2014 budget, a supplemental 2013 budget, an extension of the validity of the calamity fund and quick response fund, and the extension of the Philippine National Railways’ corporate life.
Despite this disparity in terms of bills enacted to law, the 17th Congress gained headlines for controversial measures and legislative inquiries dictated by a political agenda that rocked even a chamber dominated by an alliance.
The bill seeking to reimpose the death penalty and several revenue generation measures emerged as the primary measures that trumped other bills in the legislative mill.
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, President Rodrigo Duterte’s closest ally and bosom buddy in Congress, was the first author to file such a measure. In fact, his version of the death penalty seeking to reimpose capital punishment on heinous crimes gained the title as House Bill No. 1, or the very first bill to be filed at the Bills and Index on the very first day of session.
This bill was followed by six other similar measures, which was consolidated into a single proposal, House Bill 4727. The controversy over the bill so divided the House that the leadership had to bend over and limit capital punishment to drug-related offense only, consistent with the administration’s brutal war on drugs.
HB 4727 breezed through the legislative mill and beat other measures to the finish line.
The different bills on death penalty first reached the justice committee for a hearing on Nov. 15, 2016, and hurdled the committee on Dec. 7, 2016, just after two other committee hearings.
The bills were then consolidated into a mother bill on Jan. 11, 2017, and calendared on the plenary for sponsorship and debate on February.
Backed by the House leadership, the bill was propelled through the second reading debates without much ado. It was sponsored and interpellated on for six session days, debated by only seven lawmakers, and eventually passed second reading on March 1, barely a month since being calendared on the floor. Barely a week later, the death penalty bill passed third and final reading on March 7.
Critics pinned the blame on the leadership for railroading the measure. The bill’s journey from its committee hearing on November last year to see the light of day March this year suggests that the lower House dedicated much of its time on the controversial measure, despite having little time for plenary debate.
Minority Leader Danilo Suarez, one of the death penalty authors, saw it that way, at least.
“Nagkaroon kasi tayo ng mga highly-debatable issues kung saan naubos yung oras natin gaya nung death penalty,” Suarez said ina press conference on Thursday. “Halos doon nag-focus.”
(“We faced highly-debatable issues on which we spent so much of our time just like what happened to the death penalty. We focused almost entirely on these issues.”)
Based on Suarez’s estimate, contestable measures like the death penalty ate up 30 percent of plenary hours.
The bid to restore death penalty on drug-related offenses faces a gridlock on the Senate, where members are not so keen on passing the controversial measure.
The bill’s easy sailing in the House was mainly due to the help of the rainbow super majority coalition, which posed little or no opposition to administration pet bills.
Among the 217 lawmakers who voted for the measure, 204 were from the majority bloc, or those who voted for Alvarez for the speakership.
At least 80 of the 217 pro-death lawmakers came from the ruling PDP-Laban, whose membership rose from just three in the previous Congress to more than 90 now in the 292-strong chamber.
The death penalty is just one of 53 national measures approved on final reading during the first regular session. But a perusal of the third reading measures shows that the lower House also approved other measures amending penal laws – prescribing stricter penalties on the crime of delivering prisoners from jail and infidelity in the custody of prisoners, authorizing the court to require community service in lieu of imprisonment for an arresto menor crime, excluding from application for the Indeterminate Sentence Law those convicted of crimes against a minor, to name a few.
This seeming focus of the House on penal legislations is reflected in its leadership’s committee agenda.
A look at the committee hearings scheduled by the Committee on Rules, led by majority leader and staunch ally Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, indicates that the justice committee, which tackles relevant penal laws, got a bigger bite of the pie.
Of the overall 672 committee hearings and meetings (excluding the cancelled ones), the justice committee held 31 hearings and meetings during the first regular session, or the second most number of committee meetings next to the appropriations committee, which held 60 marathon hearings to deliberate on the national budget.
The ways and means committee, tasked with deliberating on revenue generating measures, was the fifth most productive committee holding 22 committee hearings and meetings during the first regular session.
At least six revenue generating bills that originated from this committee saw the light of day on third and final reading. The most controversial one is House Bill 5636, or the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN), certified as urgent by the President and sought to lower personal income tax, raise excise tax on oil and vehicles, and expand the value-added tax (VAT) base.
The TRAIN bill was calendared on the floor for sponsorship and debate on May 23, 24, and 29, was interpellated by 14 lawmakers, and was approved on second reading on May 31. Because the President certified it as urgent, the bill was passed on third and final reading on the same day, with 246 votes.
The final version of the bill did not just lower personal income tax, raise excise tax on oil and vehicles, and expand the value-added tax base. It also imposed taxes on previously untaxed services and products, such as sweetened beverages and lotto winnings.
The latest version of the bill sought to add a new provision to the National Internal Revenue Code by imposing an excise tax on sugar sweetened beverage.
It also weeded out the tax exemption on the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and lotto winnings, by removing the PCSO lotto winnings as an exemption to the 20 percent tax on interests, royalties, prizes and other winnings.
The tax measure intended to finance the Duterte administration’s ambitious infrastructure program was criticized by militant lawmakers as anti-poor, because behind the noble bid to lower personal income taxes comes the imposition of new taxes on oil, automobile, sweetened beverage, and even lotto.
Besides TRAIN, the House also passed similar revenue generating measures, among these are the simplification of the estate and donor’s tax rates amending for this purpose the National Internal Revenue Code, as well as granting amnesty in the payment of estate tax.
In summing up the first regular session during their last regular session day, Alvarez touted the administration’s legislative agenda as “pro-people.”
“Within just one year from being convened last July 2016, and despite one of the most divisive and partisan elections to date, we can proudly tell the Filipino people that we have delivered legislation that will affect their daily lives in a positive way,” Alvarez said on May 31, before Congress went on sine die break.
The House also became a venue for investigations in aid of legislation masked with a political agenda, led by the top leaders Alvarez and Fariñas.
Alvarez initiated an investigation into an allegedly disadvantageous contract with the government of the banana firm Tagum Agricultural Development Co. (Tadeco), which is owned by the family of Davao Del Norte Rep. Antonio “Tonyboy” Floirendo Jr., Alvarez’s former friend and now his political rival after a falling-out between the two men’s girlfriends.
After admitting the affair, Alvarez said he was unfazed by any threat of disbarment.
Alvarez denied using taxpayers’ money and a public hearing to villify his political rival, adding that he only wanted to get to the truth about Tadeco’s allegedly disadvantageous deals with government.
He said the hearing should be seen as a way to determine if the contract with government of Floirendo’s Tadeco caused undue injury to government.
“Paghiwalayin natin ano. Let us judge the facts as it is. Huwag natin haluhan ng anuman ang rekado. Tama ba, totoo ba na nalugi gobyerno dito? Totoo ba na ang kontrata highly disadvantageous to the government? ‘Yun ang dapat natin tingnan,” Alvarez said in an ambush interview on May 9.
(“Let us look at it separately. Let us judge the facts as it is. Let us not mix it with any other ingredients. Is it correct, is it true that the government lost income here? Is it true that the contract is highly disadvantageous to the government? We should look at those instead.”)
“If it’s not disadvantageous to government, then we entertain other reasons or other motives,” he added.
Fariñas, meanwhile, initiated an investigation into the Ilocos Norte provincial government’s use of tobacco funds, implicating Gov. Imee Marcos and subjecting her to possible arrest for contempt for continuously snubbing the probe.
But it was not only Marcos who suffered a misfortune. Fariñas was declared persona non grata in his own district by the Ilocos Norte Provincial Board, which resulted from his refusal to release six provincial government officials from detention for contempt even as they were granted a habeas corpus petition by the Court of Appeals.
“I am a citizen of this country, and no one, especially Sangguniang Panlalawigan members, can declare me, or any other citizen of this country, a persona non grata,” Fariñas said in a message to reports on June 27. “Not even convicted criminals are declared as such. I am the duly elected representative of the first district of Ilocos Norte, and the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives.”
“In non-diplomatic usage, referring to someone as persona non grata is to say that he or she is ostracized,” he added. “Such a person is for all intents and purposes culturally shunned, so as to be figuratively non-existent. That is what those eight have done to me!”
In calling for the probe, Fariñas alleged that about P66.45 million tobacco funds were used to purchase minicabs, buses and mini trucks for the different Ilocos Norte municipalities, even though the law – Republic Act 7171 – that imposed the tax on Virginia cigarettes states that the excise tax should be used for livelihood projects and infrastructure projects benefiting the tobacco farmers.
Despite possible misuse of public funds, the investigation into the alleged anomaly also proved beneficial to vilify the Fariñas clan’s political rival in Ilocos Norte.
The House inquiry into the tobacco funds mess implicating Marcos is setting the stage for the 2019 elections where a face-off is expected between Marcoses and Fariñases, Ilocos Norte’s most prominent political clans asserting dominance over the province. /atm
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