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In praise of …

I’m going to do something out of character and beyond a columnist’s task, our role being to criticize the government. The government does more than enough boasting of its achievements, or supposed achievements. Congress doesn’t get much praise for its actions, and frankly there are times when it doesn’t deserve any, such as when it conducts charades “in aid of legislation”—legislation, incidentally, that is not subsequently raised, let alone passed, except on very rare occasions.

On top of that, much is made of how many bills a politician has filed, and in evaluation of Congress. We don’t need new laws; heaven knows there are too many already. What we need are quality laws that improve our well-being and are properly implemented. So I don’t rank a politician by the number of bills he or she has filed, but on the submission of just a few that will really help society.

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But today I’m going to praise the leaders of Congress. I’ve worked with all Senate presidents except Juan Ponce Enrile, and all Speakers. And they’ve all been good, despite how the media often portrayed them. You can’t believe how difficult a task it is to control other politicians and get them to agree on necessary legislation.

So Senate President Frank Drilon and House Speaker Sonny Belmonte must be commended as they got through some necessary but tough-to-achieve legislation. The 16th Congress saw the enactment of key reform measures. Some, prior to their intervention, had languished in Congress for nearly two decades.

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The one where I was closely involved in and a long-time fighter for was the bill creating a Department of Information and Communications Technology. It’s essential in the interconnected world of the future. They got it passed. But the “real” achievement was convincing a President stuck in the last century to sign it into law. The finessing was incredible. As the Philippines leads into the IT world, the people will thank them for it.

The reproductive health (RH) bill also got through under their watch despite outrageous opposition from the Philippine version of a Catholic Church (no other predominantly Catholic country opposes the use of contraceptives). The RH Law gives women the right over their bodies, and families the choice to have only the children they can bring up for a decent life. It also ensures that the population grows at a sustainable level in the long term.

The bill’s approval took political courage. People have a right to choose as their conscience dictates—Drilon and Belmonte recognized that.

The two leaders also worked hard for the passage of the GOCC Governance Act and the Sin Tax Reform Law. Additional revenues generated from the latter are benefiting the health sector.

The other important measures they led to success include the Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act and the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act. The latter enhances government revenues and modernizes and aligns the Philippines’ customs procedures with global best practices. It is crucial in fighting smuggling, and also benefits the more than 10 million overseas Filipino workers as it raises the tax-exempt value of the items they send home to their families.

Drilon and Belmonte fought entrenched interests to get the Cabotage Law through, reducing costs and speeding shipments. It’s now in effect, despite continuing efforts to derail it. International ships can now load and unload cargo at any port, whether domestic or international.

The measure amending the charter of the Sandiganbayan should also result in the speedier resolution of cases against erring public officials. It’s one measure that the incoming administration can rely on in fulfilling its promise of improving transparency in government transactions.

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The successors of Drilon and Belmonte might have an easier task. Incoming Speaker Bebot

Alvarez has an incredible 260 of the 290 House members on his side, while incoming Senate President Koko Pimentel has 17 of the 24 senators committed. Now, mind you, on some issues they may show some independence where it really should be shown, and diplomatic persuasion is necessary to get other members to agree. But I don’t expect that too often and I’m confident both can handle that.

The two incoming leaders have the numbers to approve key pieces of legislation. And what we’d like to see first is for Congress leaders to meet with President-elect Rodrigo Duterte and decide on the means to review the Constitution, then go into action so a plebiscite can be held before the 2019 midterm elections.

The scandalous theft of $81 million says ever too clearly that the Anti-Money Laundering Act needs urgent strengthening. The others that business will see as beneficial include the fiscal incentives rationalization bill, which streamlines the incentives given to investors with the primary goal of making the Philippines a competitive investment destination in Southeast Asia; amendments to the Build-Operate-Transfer Law which will complement the implementation of the recently enacted Right-of-Way Act to hasten the implementation of vital infrastructure projects, especially those under the public-private partnership program; and amendments to the charter of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas that will expand its authority and increase its capitalization. Credit rating firm Moody’s said the last measure’s enactment is crucial in ensuring the Philippines’ credit standing post-Aquino administration.

Then there’s the freedom of information bill which fosters greater transparency in government transactions and is among the much-needed anticorruption reforms. This doesn’t have to be done, however. Duterte can issue an executive order to open up the government, but a law institutionalizes it and strengthens it.

A new Congress, a new beginning. May it be a successful one.

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E-mail: [email protected] Read my previous columns: www.wallacebusinessforum.com.

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TAGS: congress, Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, Department of Information and Communications Technology, Franklin Drilon, RH law, Sonny Belmonte, Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act
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