The 13th Congress has used up almost a third of its term, reportedly spends millions a day for its legislative work and still has tons of work to do. It must now work double pace if it would like to compensate for lost time – as some of its members undoubtedly do.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Supposedly, the significance of a House of Representatives in a government with a bicameral legislature lies in having a set of lawmakers directly representing specific geographical groups or social sectors, as opposed to a Senate in which a smaller number of solons normally share the task of representing the entire nation. Those in the so-called lower House are supposedly closer to the people.
It is thus important and timely to assess the 13th Congress. Enough time has passed to project what is to be expected of those supposed to be direct representatives of the people for this year, based on what they have done so far.
Of the 3,552 bills filed from the day the House convened on July 1 to Dec. 31, 2004, 1,225 or a good 34.49 percent are of purely local scope. An example is House Bill No. 00007 or “An Act Establishing A National High School in Barangay Sisim, Municipality of Cabugao, Province of Ilocos Sur to be Known as the SISIM National High School and Appropriating Funds Therefore.”
Meanwhile, there are 11 House concurrent resolutions all calling for amendments to the 1987 Constitution.
The basic way to assess the performance of the 13th Congress thus far would be to look back at how it responded to the pressing issues that confronted the people during the period.
Revenue measures, debt and fiscal crisis
In her State of the Nation Address (SoNA) July 26, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo urged Congress to pass eight new revenue measures: an increase in specific taxes on petroleum products, a two-step increase in the value-added tax, indexation to inflation of excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products, rationalization of fees and charges, the institutionalization of a lateral attrition law, the imposition of a tax on text messages, shift from net to gross income taxation, and the granting of general tax amnesty with the submission of statements of assets and liabilities (SALs). These revenue measures, Macapagal-Arroyo said, are intended to generate P80 billion in additional government funds.
The imposition of the eight revenue measures was vigorously opposed by cause-oriented groups and nationalist economists, who argued that the government could earn more money by renegotiating the country’s debts and repudiating the odious loans, fixing the tax collection system, curbing corruption, and abandoning externally-imposed economic policies promoting tariff removal.
The tax on text messages, in particular, became a highly sensitive consumer issue, and so vehement were the protests against it that even House Speaker Jose de Venecia was driven to make a categorical statement opposing it. The Philippines is said to be the world’s “texting capital.”
Meanwhile, Bayan Muna (People First) Rep. Satur Ocampo filed a bill seeking to repeal the Automatic Appropriations Act. In this issue, he found an ally in Parañaque City Rep. Eduardo Zialcita (Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats). Both Zialcita and Quezon City Rep. Edcel Lagman have filed bills and resolutions calling for an audit of the country’s foreign debt – which, as of last year, mathematically translated to a P41,000 debt for every Filipino.
Another Bayan Muna representative, Teddy Casiño, contributed to this campaign by authoring a resolution opposing the imposition of any new tax measure without the government taking remedial steps to address the factors for the drying-up of funds. He also filed a resolution seeking inquiry into the government’s yearly revenue losses due to tax leakage, and recommending that the government undertake remedial measures before considering the imposition of new taxes.
His resolutions gained massive support in the House: among those who signed it were administration congressmen, such as Prospero Pichay and Juan Miguel Zubiri.
A number of congressmen who supported the resolution expressed interest in getting involved with the broad-based Alliance of Concerned Citizens Opposed to Unjust New Taxes (ACCOUNT).
Congress was able to approve only the indexation to inflation of the excise tax on alcohol and tobacco products as of end-2004.
The elimination of tariffs on imported goods stems from globalization policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund-World Bank (IMF-WB) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Rep. Rafael Mariano has a bill seeking to remove Philippine agriculture from the WTO framework – which, unfortunately, is still pending.
Wage increase and labor/peasant rights
The results of the social survey by the Social Weather Station (SWS) for the third quarter of 2004, showing that 15 percent of Filipino families spent an entire day with nothing to eat during the period, highlighted the need for a P125 across-the-board wage increase for workers and an increase in the farmgate price of palay (unmilled rice) as immediate economic relief for the country’s poorest sectors – who comprise 88 percent of the population based on studies by the socio-economic think tank IBON Foundation. These also stressed the need to address the problem of land-grabbing in the rural areas.
House Bill 345, which provides for a P125 ($2.23 based on a $1:P56 exchange rate) wage increase – authored by Rep. Roseller Barinaga (2D Zamboanga del Norte, Nationalist People’s Coalition or NPC) in consolidation with Anakpawis Reps. Crispin Beltran and Mariano, Casiño, and Gabriela Women’s Party (GWP) Rep. Liza Maza – has been approved by the House Committee on Labor and is up for second reading.
Lest this be mistaken for a piece of good news, it must be recalled that the P125 wage increase bill had been filed in the 12th Congress (2001-2004) but did not go anywhere – just like the bill providing for compensation for human rights victims under the Marcos regime. It was among the first to be introduced in the 13th Congress but is still pending in spite of the measure’s urgency.
Also a concern of workers is the lack of security of tenure under the program of contractualization. Maza and Zubiri (3D Bukidnon, Lakas-CMD) both have bills seeking to strengthen the right to security of tenure.
The Maza bill aims to address the current practice of contractualization. It stipulates that an employee is deemed regular “from the time he is engaged to perform activities by the employer whether or not such activities are necessary or desirable in the usual business or trade of the employer except where the employment is fixed for a specific project the completion of which has been determined at the time of hiring.” It also declares probationary and casual employment as illegal.
On the other hand, the Zubiri bill considers it as an unfair labor practice “to classify as casual, contractual, subcontractor, or labor-only contracting, employees who are regular by virtue of their activities.”
Mariano, meanwhile, has filed bills providing for farmers’ rights to land and security of tenure. He has resolutions calling for a moratorium on land use conversion “if warranted.”
The Maza and Zubiri bills are still pending, as well as Mariano’s bills and resolutions.
Oil and power
Meanwhile, the continuous increase in prices of petroleum products and power rates have triggered mass protests and an increasing clamor for remedial measures to the deregulation of the downstream oil industry and the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA).
Beltran has a bill seeking to repeal the Downstream Oil Industry Deregulation Act of 1996. Rep. Robert Ace Barbers (2ndD Surigao del Norte, Lakas-CMD) has a resolution urging the government to buy back its 11-percent shares in the Petron oil corporation. Rep. Jacinto Paras (1D Negros Oriental, Lakas-CMD) has HB 3259, which seeks to protect consumers from “uncontrolled, unjustified and arbitrary increases” in the prices of petroleum products.
Beltran also has a bill seeking to repeal the EPIRA. Meanwhile, Partido ng Manggagawa (PM or Worker’s Party) Rep. Renato Magtubo has HR 180, directing the Committees on Government Corporations and Public Enterprises and on Energy “to jointly conduct an inquiry, in aid of legislation, on the power sector’s financials, including impact scenarios of proposed power rate increases.”
Sadly, however, these measures are still pending.
The 2005 budget is another gauge of the 13th Congress’ performance in its first six months.
In late December the House approved the proposed 2005 budget – after deliberating on it for four months. Those attending the hearings on the Nov. 16 massacre of striking workers at Hacienda Luisita, the Cojuangco/Aquino-owned sugar plantation in Tarlac (120 kms. north of Manila), found it exasperating that the proceedings at one point had to be cut short because there were still budget deliberations to be held.
The 2005 budget is now in the Senate and President Macapagal-Arroyo is hopeful that it will be approved by February. Of the P907.6-billion budget, P309.7 billion is allocated for the servicing of debt interest; while the combined budgets of the Departments of Education (DepEd), Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Agrarian Reform (DAR), and Health (DoH) amount to only P185.03 billion.
The 2005 budget also carries appropriations for pork barrel, an issue that became controversial in mid-2004 amid debates on corruption and the fiscal crisis.
The late activist and film director Lino Brocka became famous, among other things, for a film titled Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You were Weighed but Found Wanting). Were Brocka alive today, he might have said the same of the 13th Congress’ performance during its first six months.
While there were what may be looked upon as a few bright spots in the 13th Congress’ performance for its first six months, it did not – as a whole – respond as urgently as it should have to the pressing issues that confronted the people during the period in question. Misprioritization still hounds its work, as evidenced by the urgent legislative measures that remain pending with their respective committees.
The 13th Congress has used up almost a third of its term, reportedly spends millions a day for its legislative work and still has tons of work to do. It must now work double pace if it would like to compensate for lost time – as some of its members undoubtedly do. Bulatlat.com