Congress passes 3 out of 12 bills in Duterte’s 1st SONA

Camille Elemia
Congress passes 3 out of 12 bills in Duterte’s 1st SONA
These 3 bills still await President Rodrigo Duterte's signature

MANILA, Philippines – In his 1st State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte called on Congress to pass laws on federalism, tax reforms, and emergency powers to solve the traffic crisis in the metro.

But a year after, only 3 out of the 12 proposed measures in his SONA were passed by Congress, which is dominated by his allies. The Senate and the House of Representatives approved the measures extending the validity of passports and driver’s licenses, and the bill establishing free Internet in public places, which are all awaiting the President’s signature.

Duterte also did not mention in his first SONA two of his controversial priority bills – the reimposition of the death penalty and the bill lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Both measures advanced in the House but languished in the Senate.

In its first year, the 17th Congress passed 4 laws: the postponement of barangay elections, the 2017 national budget, and the franchise renewal of GMA Network and Smart. (READ: Progress in Congress? How Duterte’s legislative agenda fared in 1st year)

What happened to the Duterte’s priority bills a year after his SONA?

1. Tax reform, bank secrecy reform

“On taxation, my administration will pursue tax reforms towards a simpler, and more equitable, and more efficient tax system that can foster investment and job creation. We will lower personal and corporate income tax rates [applause] and relax the bank secrecy laws. Eh na-Presidente ako eh. Ayaw ko sana makialam dito sa mga ‘to. Alam mo na (I became President. I didn’t want to get involved in this, you know).”

The country still has the second highest income tax rates in Southeast Asia and the highest corporate tax rate among its peers in the 6 biggest economies in the region. (READ: Why PH has 2nd highest income tax in ASEAN)

Duterte has promised to lower the income tax of Filipinos, a move welcomed by many. But to counter the possible loss of government revenue, the executive is seeking to impose higher taxes on automobiles, fuel, and sugar-sweetened beverages. (READ: Duterte’s tax reform: More take-home pay, higher fuel and auto taxes)

The House passed the first batch of tax reforms under Duterte, with some amendments to Malacañang’s version. Under the rules, tax measures should emanate from the House before they are transmitted to the Senate.

It’s now the Senate’s turn but it is so far not keen on passing Malacañang’s version of the bill, saying it is “anti-poor.” 

Senate ways and means committee chair Juan Edgardo Angara said they would pass the measure, which is still at the committee level, but with major revisions. Some senators slammed Socioeconomic Planning secretary Ernesto Pernia for pressuring Congress to approve the executive version.

2. Ease of doing business

“Reforms to ensure competitiveness and promote ease of doing business will be mandatory. Reacting to these needs, the restrictions on the economy will be needed to make more investments to come and to develop labor-intensive industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism shall be pursued.

“Processing time in issuing permits and licenses shall be reduced to the barest minimum, in my city, it is always 3 days for local governments. That will bind the Office of the President down to the last barangay elect. Three days. Three days.”

The measure is still pending in both chambers of Congress. In the Senate, the bill is up for second reading while in the House, it is up for sponsorship.

The bill seeks to attract more investments in the country by simplifying permit and licensing systems.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto earlier lamented that it takes 34 days to start a business, 35 days to register a property, and 36 days to pay taxes.

3. Emergency powers vs traffic

“Many in government opine realistically, and I would have to agree, that the worsening traffic situation could be logically addressed, if Congress would also accord emergency powers to the agencies concerned. Ayaw mo? Okay lang rin. Para makita namin kung gusto ninyong madasolian. Alam naman talaga ninyo sagad na lahat, sagad na. Nasa inyo ‘yan (You don’t want to? Fine by me. So that we’ll see if you want things done faster. You all know that everything had been done. It’s up to you). If you give it, fine. If you don’t, we take the longer route, slowly.”

A year after, the bill is still pending in both chambers. Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez earlier slammed the Department of Transportation for being “uncooperative,” as it has yet to give concrete plans.

The House transportation panel approved the bill granting “special” powers to the President but it has yet to start debates on the measure. In the Senate, it is still in the period of deliberations.

Senator Grace Poe, chair of the public services comittee, said the measure would authorize the President to use alternative methods of procurement under existing laws to expedite the implementation of key transportation projects to end traffic in the metro.

Poe said the chamber failed to pass the measure because there were other bills prioritized.

4. Federalism

“You know my advice to you is maintain a federal system, a parliament, but be sure to have a president. Hindi na ako niyan (Not me). I’m disqualified and by that time I would  no longer be here. But, I can commit today to the Republic of the Philippines and its people: If you hurry up the federal system of government and you can submit it to the Filipino people by the fourth, fifth year; proseso ‘yan e (it’s a process). You call for a referendum and after that call for a presidential election, I will go. Sibat na ako (I’ll leave). But you just have a president. You copy the France system. Huwag mo hayaan ‘yung puro na parliament. Delikado iyon (Don’t leave it all up to parliament. That’s dangerous).”

The switch to federalism was among the top campaign promises of Duterte and continues to be a centerpiece of his administration. He said federalism would distribute wealth and power across the country, removing the concentration on “imperial” Manila.

Under a federal system, the country will be divided into autonomous states that will have jurisdiction over their own laws, industries, public safety, education, healthcare, infrastructure, transportation, and culture. (READ: Will federalism address PH woes? Pros and cons of making the shift)

The national government is left to oversee matters with nationwide bearing like foreign policy and national security.

But before this is achieved, a long process has to be followed, as the 1987 Constitution has to be amended first. The manner of changing the Charter remains an issue – the President wants a Constituent Assembly while some critics and members of the political opposition favor a Constitutional Convention. (READ: The problem with Con-Ass? Distrust of Congress)

In the Senate, the bill seeking Charter change is still in the committee level. In the House, the panel already approved it and and is up for plenary debates.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III, Duterte’s party mate, said they will prioritize federalism once session resumes in July. Some senators, however, have expressed concerns over the matter, especially after Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao.

5. Freedom of Information

“Eh ang maganda nito (What is good is), I have signed the Executive Order sa aming (on our) FOI. Naunahan ko kayo….Nandoon na ang sa akin. Oo, tapos na ako (I beat you to it. I’m done with mine)….It will be out today. Alam mo sabi ko, unahan na natin itong Congress, puro mayayabang ang mga nandiyan (I said, let’s beat Congress to it, it’s filled with braggarts). We grab the – each other…They say, ‘Stealing one’s thunder.’ Unahan na natin (Let’s beat them to it).”

Barely a month in office, Duterte signed an Executive Order mandating public disclosure of all offices under the executive branch. This, however, comes with over a hundred exceptions.

While he got ahead of Congress, Duterte has yet to rally his allies to pass the measure.

In the past, there had been no problems with the bill’s passage in the Senate, as the issue lies with the House.

Now, the bill is pending 2nd reading approval in the Senate while it remains at the committee level in the lower chamber.

6. People’s Broadcasting Corportation

“To better manage public information, a law should be passed – I’m addressing Congress – to create the People’s Broadcasting Corporation, replacing PTV-4, the government-run TV station, which now aims to replicate international government broadcasting networks.”

In his 1st SONA, President Duterte promised the creation of the PBC to replace state-run PTV4. He said then that international news agencies such as the BBC would train the people who would work for the PBC.

Palace Communications Secretary Martin Andanar earlier said that for a long time, the government’s PTV4, Radyo ng Bayan, and Channel 13 have been left behind by its private counterparts. To catch up, integration must be done.

Administration Senator Loren Legarda filed the measure in August 2016. A year after Duterte’s 1st SONA, the bill remains in the public services committee.

In the House, Quezon City Representative Alfred Vargas filed the bill, which remains pending in the committee on government enterprises and privatization.

PTV4 was recently put in the spotlight for abruptly ending the contract of one of its mainstay anchors, Kathy San Gabriel.

7. Whistleblower Protection Act

“To eradicate the prevalent cultures of fear and silence that have hounded our justice system, I asked Congress – you – to enact the Whistleblower Protection Law while the present Witness Protection Program shall be strengthened.”

The President asked Congress to pass the Whistleblower Protection Law to ensure the safety of citizens who would report violation or wrongdoing. But to date, the measure remains pending in the justice committees of both chambers of Congress.

The House justice panel prioritized the hearings against opposition Senator Leila de Lima while the Senate committee was preoccupied with the investigations into the spate of extrajudicial killings and corrupt practices in the Bureau of Immigration, among others.

8. Bangsamoro Basic Law

“The only way they said that we can have this. Iyong BBL, ibigay na natin (Let’s them them the BBL), minus the things that you do not want. Iyong mga constitutional issues, tanggalin muna natin. Ibigay ko ‘yung area. Nandiyan na ‘yan eh ( Let’s remove the constitutional issues. I’ll give them their area. It’s already there anyway). So I ask you pass it minus the Constitutional issues that are contentious. Ibigay na natin at when the federal system comes, isali mo na sa package, together with Misuari (Let’s give it and when the federal system comes, put it in a package, together with Misuari). That is the solution for Mindanao. Nothing else. Believe me. Nothing else will do. Please sleep on it, ponder on it, because that’s the only way to proceed.”

The Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte the revised draft of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that seeks to create a new Bangsamoro region in Mindanao.

The creation of a new region that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) will complete the 2014 peace agreement between the government and Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Duterte committed to push for the legislation that failed to pass in the previous Aquino administration.

9. OFWs

“I may now also ask on Congress to consider drawing up bills consolidating and merging agencies and offices having to do with the Overseas Filipino to have a department that shall focus on and quickly respond to their problems and concerns. Kailangan ko ng isa (I need just one).”

Duterte reiterated his support for this in April before the Filipino community in Bahrain, saying the department will be established in a “few months.”

“[The] overseas [department], meron na kayo (you will have it) in a few months, you will have a Department on OFW only.”

However, the measures filed in the Senate and House are still pending at the committee level. 

Duterte is set to deliver his 2nd SONA on Monday, July 24. Will he reiterate his appeal for the passage of these bills and push for new priority measures? –

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email