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The 17th Congress: Hits and misses

/ 05:06 AM June 15, 2019

The third regular session of the 17th Congress began with a “bizarre leadership revamp” in the lower chamber. Right before President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo emerged as the new Speaker, replacing Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez.

The power struggle should have ended after Arroyo’s election, but along the way, sniping broke out between the Senate and the House of Representatives, affecting the legislative process for the rest of the 17th Congress.

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The most prominent of these rifts led to the budget impasse, which forced the government to operate on a reenacted budget from January to April this year. The row between Congress leaders and the President’s economic managers caused so much unnecessary delay. To end the gridlock, President Duterte eventually vetoed some P95.3 billion in appropriations that were deemed not in accordance with his administration’s priorities. He signed the revised budget only on April 15.

The President’s economic team noted that the delay resulted in underspending of about P1 billion per day, equivalent to P80 billion-P90 billion in disbursements for the first quarter. Consequently, the Philippine economy grew by only 5.6 percent, the slowest recorded over the last 16 quarters. Many experts and observers were dismayed over the costly power struggle.

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However, significant pieces of legislation were also passed this year that are expected to have a major impact on the lives of Filipinos. These include the rice tariffication law, which finally abolishes nonquantitative restrictions on rice imports; amendments to the charters of the Social Security System and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas; the law granting bigger discounts for political advertisements; the Tax Amnesty Act, although with a veto; the Universal Health Care Act; the National Integrated Cancer Control Act; the Revised Corporation Code; and the Tourism Act of 2009, which grants a 10-year extension in incentives for tourism enterprises.

Other key legislation that were enacted into law are: the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act, the Mental Health Act, Magna Carta of the Poor, Free College Act, and the institutionalization of Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program and the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law.

In a letter, Arroyo had also urged Senate President Tito Sotto to pass 11 priority bills approved by the House of Representatives. These are measures on security of tenure, the coconut industry fund, national land use, disaster resilience, the tax reform to attract opportunities bill (TRAIN2 or Trabaho Bill), a new fiscal regime for the mining industry, reforms in property valuation and assessment, and amendments to raise the excise tax on tobacco products.

Expected to be top priority in the 18th Congress are amendments to the Public Service Act and Foreign Investments Act, as well as the controversial Trabaho bill, all of which will significantly impact the economy. Unless, of course, the legislators engage again in protracted political squabbling and power struggles, which only delay and derail significant law- and policymaking.

The public’s basic expectation is that Congress should focus on urgent measures that respond to the changing domestic, regional and international environments. One key issue on the domestic front is the timely passage of the 2020 budget, given how the budget impasse this year derailed government programs and adversely affected the delivery of public services.

The new Congress should also be keen on how evolving regional and international economic developments will continue to impact the Philippine economy and pose significant risks to its steady, but still vulnerable, growth prospects.

Dindo Manhit is founder and managing director of Stratbase Group.

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TAGS: 17th Congress, leadership revamp, power struggle
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