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‘Wounded’ Congress presents report card

As Congress continues to get a beating over the pork barrel scam, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said the House of Representatives could let its accomplishments speak for themselves now and in the future. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines–As Congress continues to get a beating over the pork barrel scam, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte said the House of Representatives could let its accomplishments speak for themselves now and in the future.

Belmonte tried to buoy up colleagues’ spirits during the last day of their first regular session by citing measures the House had approved in one year, which he said were a testament to the lawmakers fulfilling their duties.

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The raging pork barrel controversy lent a melancholy tone to the proceedings on Wednesday night, with Marikina Rep. Romero Quimbo noting that Congress was a “wounded” institution though he tried to put a positive spin on the matter by saying strong leadership had propped up the House.

The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the graft-ridden Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), which financed pet projects of senators and congressmen and provided them with huge kickbacks.

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Faced with public outrage, Congress abolished the PDAF in the 2014 national budget, and the Senate blue ribbon committee opened an inquiry into the scam.

A number of lawmakers have been implicated in the P10-billion pork barrel scam, with three senators—Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr.—facing arrest. The senators have denied any wrongdoing.

The three senators have been charged with plunder and graft, along with alleged scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles, their legislative staff, and congressional representatives, in the Sandiganbayan.

On the Supreme Court’s order, the antigraft court is expected to raffle off the cases to a division Friday, which would issue the arrest warrants upon the determination of probable cause.

‘Gravest crisis’

For his part, Senate President Franklin Drilon enumerated bills at the end of Congress’ first regular session on Wednesday night that he said were passed at a time of “political turmoil.”

“This august chamber, which has traditionally reveled in the confidence of the electorate and consistently maintained its prominence, has been battered by, perhaps, the gravest crisis to have ever crossed its path,” Drilon said of the pork barrel scandal that has roiled Congress the past months.

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“In my 16 years in the Senate, never before have I witnessed this kind of turmoil,” he added.

Belmonte, in his farewell remarks, said the House could not easily escape the pork barrel controversy but it could continue doing its job.

“We cannot wish away nor remain silent on the unremitting assaults on the integrity of the House and of its members, often without basis, in the wake of the PDAF controversy. But this, our work in the first regular session, must and should speak eloquently for us as public servants, and as representatives of our constituencies to the best we can do,” he said.

He added that the lawmakers should continue proving to the people that they were doing their duties and should ensure that legislation would be an authentic instrument of service to the country and the people.

“Our performance as legislators proves our fidelity to our people’s trust. We have two years remaining in this 16th Congress to continue to make our performance speak for us and for this House,” he said.

Just 5 measures

For its first regular session, both chambers of Congress approved five measures that have become law, including the 2014 budget.

The others are the law strengthening the Maritime Industry Authority, a supplemental budget for 2013 for calamities, and the measures postponing the Sangguniang Kabataan elections and extending the validity of the 2013 calamity fund.

Ten other national bills are set for President Aquino’s approval. On the part of the House, it has approved 212 bills on third reading and adopted 107 resolutions.

Drilon said the raft of new measures passed by Congress was topped by House Bill No. 353, which mandates telecommunications service providers to send free mobile alerts in times of disasters.

It also includes the proposed graphic health warning law that mandates the printing of warnings on the deadly effects of smoking on half of the display surface of tobacco packages.

Yet another approved bill is the proposed amendment to the Act Liberalizing the Scope and Entry of Operations of Foreign Banks allowing more foreign banks to own up to 100 percent of the voting stocks of domestic banks.

Both chambers also passed the bill extending the corporate life of state-run Philippine National Railways.

Others on the list are Senate Bill No. 2046, which promotes poverty reduction by developing micro, small and medium enterprises; SB No. 2211 which protects consumers when buying new cars; SB No. 2273 which  strengthens the government’s antidrug campaign, and HB No. 3187 granting franchise to Cotabato Light And Power Co. to distribute power in parts of Maguindanao.

Congress also passed HB No. 4084 granting Philippine citizenship to NBA player Andray Blatche, and House joint resolution declaring July 27, 2014, a special non-working holiday in commemoration of Iglesia ni Cristo’s founding anniversary.

Congress is adjourning sine die this week, and will reopen on July 28 for the second regular session.

Leaders of Congress have been working to approve measures so that its performance would surpass any scandal or controversy, Belmonte said.

Cha-cha, Bangsamoro

Belmonte said he hoped Congress would approve “more strategic [pieces of] legislation” in its second regular session, which include his own resolution to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution, the Bangsamoro bill, the antidynasty bill, the freedom of information (FOI) bill and the competition or antitrust bills.

“All these to ensure that the inroads and gains attained toward institutionalizing good governance and public accountability will endure even beyond the term of the present administration,” he said.

FOI languishing in House

Of these measures, the FOI bill has been pushed by anticorruption advocates who said it would help reduce or uncover wrongdoing in government. The measure, which the Senate has approved on final reading, has been languishing in the House, stuck at the committee level.

The antipolitical dynasty, another measure supported by nongovernment organizations, has been introduced in the plenary.

The controversial Charter change (Cha-cha) resolution has also been brought to the plenary and is awaiting debates.

The Speaker also hailed the House for the approval of various measures that included those pointed out by Drilon.

Belmonte also praised the approval of various education measures, including the ladderized education interface, open distance learning in higher education, unified financial assistance system for higher technical education, open high school system and free college in information technology.

Approval rating

Belmonte said he wanted to end the first year of Congress on a hopeful note, as he pointed out that the House had “record-high” approval and trust ratings when Congress opened a year ago, and the economy was growing at an unprecedented pace.

Quimbo, who sponsored a resolution commending the Speaker for leading the House in its first regular session, said weaker institutions would have crumbled against the beating the chamber had received.

But it has remained standing, and what has not killed it would only make it stronger, said Quimbo.

Strong foundations

Drilon said the mere fact that the media openly reported on the scam was proof of the strength of the country’s “democratic foundations” to withstand political turmoil.

“However, we cannot deny that the PDAF controversy has cast a long, dark shadow over the institution. And we completely understand the people’s outrage,” he said.

In the second regular session, Drilon said the Senate would resume debates on 19 bills, including amendments to the Fisheries Code, a bill prohibiting discrimination on employment on the basis merely of age, and a bill granting retirement benefits to barangay officials and employees.

Appeal to public

Leading Independence Day rites in San Juan, Drilon appealed to Filipinos to separate the institution from the pork barrel scandal dogging some of its members.

Drilon urged the public to be critical in parsing the issue of the alleged PDAF misuse.

Otherwise, allowing some quarters to dishonor the country’s democratic institutions would “dishonor the memory” of valiant Filipinos who fought colonizers to liberate the country, he said.

“During these trying times in our nation’s life, I call on our people to separate the institution from the controversies involving some of its members,” Drilon said in a speech at the Pinaglabanan Shrine, where Filipino freedom fighters first engaged Spanish troops in a major battle during the 1896 Revolution.

After all, through the decades, Drilon said the Senate had “zealously” preserved its independence and integrity, and has been “protective of national interest.”

After the scandal broke in the middle of last year, he said Congress abolished the PDAF in the 2014 national budget, and the Senate itself inquired into the scam.

But Drilon acknowledged that only the continuous search for truth and justice would cleanse and further strengthen the Senate as an institution.

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