Since the 18th Congress opened its first regular session last July 22, the House of Representatives has turned out to be very prolific under the leadership of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano. More than 5,000 bills have been filed over the past two months. The House has also approved on third and final reading most of the tax reform measures outlined by President Rodrigo Duterte during his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA).
Among these priority bills are: Package 2 Plus of the administration’s comprehensive tax reform program (CTRP) further increasing taxes on alcohol and electronic cigarettes; Package 4 of the CTRP which aims to simplify taxes on capital income and financial services; amendments to the Foreign Investments Act allowing foreign investors to own small and medium enterprises under certain conditions; and Package 2 of the CTRP or the proposed Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act.
Only the CTRP’s Package 3 reforming the system of property valuation remains to be passed by the plenary. Another bill that the President has certified as urgent is the amended Retail Trade Liberalization Act allowing foreign ownership of certain public utilities, which is up for floor debate in the lower legislative chamber.
But its most significant achievement was the passage of House Bill No. 4228 or the 2020 General Appropriations Bill (GAB) last Sept. 20 by a vote of 257-6, the latter all coming from the Makabayan bloc. The GAB was approved after nine consecutive session days devoted to plenary debates on the measure, some lasting for 10 hours, enabling the House to pass the national budget bill in record time – exactly 60 days after the SONA.
Instead of being commended for its efforts, the chamber has come under attack from two members of the Senate who have so far come up with unsubstantiated allegations regarding “pork barrel” insertions in the GAB.
Senator Panfilo Lacson claimed that each of the 22 deputy speakers would get P1.5 billion each in pork barrel funds on top of the P700 million that every House member will supposedly receive under the 2020 budget. But several House leaders, including Deputy Speaker Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement, vehemently branded Lacson’s allegations as a “big lie.” Lacson lamely explained that the pork barrel plan did not push through and was aborted even before it was reported in the media.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon chimed in, saying he and Lacson would be poring over the 2020 GAB because they found it irregular for the House to create a “small committee” to introduce individual amendments to the bill after it was approved on third and final reading. However, this was found to be an established procedure dating back to the 8th Congress to ensure that the national budget gets passed on time and is aligned with Malacañang’s proposed expenditure program.
Deputy Speakers Henry Oaminal of Misamis Occidental, Pablo John Garcia of Cebu, and Deogracias Victor Savellano of Ilocos Sur cried foul over the attacks by Lacson and Drilon against the House. They described the two Senators as “obstructionists” out to derail the administration’s reform programs as reflected in its proposed budget submitted to Congress.
Cayetano assured critics that the 2020 GAB does not contain “parked funds” and that the House shares Lacson’s crusade against the pork barrel. He said transparency is the key to finding illegal insertions in the budget, especially in this age of social media and digital technology when information is readily available with just a click.
Several congressmen have called on the senators to observe inter-parliamentary courtesy when the upper chamber starts scrutinizing the P4.1-trillion appropriations measure. This came after Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and House Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez arranged a truce on public criticism.
Thus, both houses should focus on the development of productive legislators and the transformation of their chambers into a relevant, responsible, and reliable Congress.