Duterte didn’t lobby enough, only 5 of 18 priority bills became laws

Mara Cepeda
(UPDATED) In two years, President Rodrigo Duterte has convened the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council only 4 times

DISTRACTED? Thirteen bills prioritized by President Rodrigo Duterte in his first two SONAs remain pending in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Illustration by Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Despite President Rodrigo Duterte enjoying overwhelming support from the 17th Congress, only 5 of the 18 bills he prioritized in his first two State of the Nation Addresses (SONAs) passed. 

The President signed into law the bills allowing internet access in public spaces and extending the validity of passports and driver’s licenses in August 2017. In December of the same year, Duterte approved the first tax reform package.

It took Duterte another 5 months to sign into law the Ease of Doing Business Act.

This is not normal, said former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña, especially for a President like Duterte known for making hardline statements on issues he feels strongly about. 

It seems that, unlike the anti-drug campaign or the more recent policy against loiterers, Duterte does not exert the same amount of effort to lobby for or defend his supposed SONA-priority bills. 

Save for a few bills, like the ones reimposing the death penalty or amending the Constitution to pave the way for federalism, the President no longer reiterated his call for Congress to pass most of the other measures after mentioning them in his first and second SONAs.

ALLIES. (From L-R) House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, ex-majority leader-turned-Senate President Vicente Sotto III, and Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez welcome Duterte to the Batasang Pambansa ahead of his 1st SONA in July 2016. Malacañang file photo

“Precisely in your SONA, you’re supposed to tell Congress that this is your legislative agenda. You want this done this year. But my sense from the two SONAs of President Duterte is he might’ve mentioned those laws, but there was no passion to get this done,” La Viña told Rappler.

He explained that this lack of lobbying on Duterte’s part gave the Senate and the House of Representatives more room to be “distracted” in pursuing other bills or conducting congressional probes.

“On the Congress’ side, I think they have been distracted by the political things that they do. The hearings, right? The hearings on the [Bureau of] Customs, the hearings on [Senator Leila] de Lima, [ex-chief justice Maria Lourdes] Sereno’s impeachment,” said La Vina. 

They just accumulated – both at the House of Representatives and the Senate, [they attended to] their own concerns. These became their priority,” he added. 

Status of pending SONA bills

What has become of the remaining 13 SONA-priority bills? The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is expected to be signed by Duterte the morning of July 23, before his 3rd SONA in the afternoon.

But the BBL still has a long way to go, with legislators expected to reconcile contentious provisions in the House and Senate versions during the bicameral conference committee meetings in mid-July. (READ: Final version of BBL holds fate of Mindanao peace process)

PLENARY. Lawmakers discuss among themselves before approving the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law on 3rd reading on May 30, 2018. File photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

Meanwhile, 4 out of the other 12 bills were already approved by the House but remain pending at the Senate committee level. These are the measures forming a Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution, the reimposition of the death penalty, government rightsizing, and the National Land Use Act. 

The House and the Senate bills on giving the President emergency powers to address the perennial traffic problem never moved past the plenary deliberations before second-reading approval. 

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the freedom of information bill is also stuck at the pre-second-reading deliberations at the plenary, while the House version remains at the committee level. 

The remaining 6 bills – the measures seeking bank secrecy reform, a review of procurement laws, establishment of the People’s Broadcasting Corporation, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the creation of the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers and the Department of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management – are still pending at the committee level in both chambers.

Few Ledac meetings

There are also discrepancies between the 18 bills Duterte included in his legislative agenda in his SONA speeches and the 17 bills prioritized by the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac)

Found below is a table summarizing the 11 common bills prioritized by Duterte in his SONAs and the Ledac. The same table also lists the measures unique to the Duterte SONA-priority bills list and the Ledac-priority measures list:

Common bills in Duterte SONA-priority list and Ledac-priority list

Bills unique to Duterte SONA-priority list Bills unique to Ledac-priority list

Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion

Bangsamoro Basic Law

Federalism

Freedom of information

Whistleblowers Protection Act

Department of Overseas Filipino Workers

Death penalty

Government rightsizing

Extending the validity of passports

Extending the validity of drivers’ licenses

Internet in public places

Ease of Doing Business Act

Bank secrecy reform

Emergency powers against traffic

Establishing the People’s Broadcasting Corporation

National Land Use Act

Department of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management

Review of procurement laws

 

Amendments to Anti-Terrorism Law

Amendments to Anti-Money Laundering Act

Amendments to Anti-Cybercrime Act

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Amendment to the National Defense Act to revive the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps

Budget reform bill

 

According to La Viña, another reason for the slow passage of these bills is the few times Duterte convened the Ledac itself. 

The President has only called for a Ledac meeting 4 times since being elected into office – a preliminary meeting on November 14, 2016, and full meetings on January 30, August 29, and September 20, all in 2017. 

PRIORITY BILLS. President Rodrigo Duterte presides over the 2nd Ledac meeting on August 29, 2017. Malacañang file photo

La Viña suggested that Duterte should call for more frequent Ledac meetings to realign the legislative agenda of both the executive branch and Congress.

“It’s a big failure if you don’t get to convene the Ledac, right? The Ledac is important to get the two houses in tune on what’s doable, what’s possible, and then the executive branch can use that either to push or to come to a compromise on what they can pass together,” he said in Filipino. 

La Viña had sat in Ledac meetings as environment undersecretary under president Fidel Ramos. He said the regular Ledac meetings during Ramos’ time led to what he described as the “golden age” of passing laws. (READ: Progress in Congress? Duterte’s legislative agenda in 1st year

“It was very effective. You will be able to pass many laws through Ledac. And that’s where all the conflicts were resolved. And that’s missing here,” he said.  

Drop the coercion, focus on vision

Ateneo de Manila University political analyst Carmel Abao said it does not help the Duterte legislative agenda either that the composition of Congress – mostly of old, upper class, and politically-ambitious males – generally remains the same.

“I think the problem with Duterte, even with [ex-president Benigno Aquino III], is they had laws but they had no plans of reforming the institutions. This is precisely because there’s no intervention with this kind of process. Their own parties promoted this process that was very male-dominated and personalistic,” said Abao in a mix of English and Filipino.

She said the longtime criticism that the House is subservient to Duterte is even more highlighted through the formation of the so-called “supermajority” bloc, which controls the nature of debates – or the lack thereof – for controversial bills. (READ: Pluralism, populism and their perversions: Congress in the time of Duterte

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarzez even removed the 2018 budgets of opposition lawmakers. The Senate is traditionally known to show more opposition against the President, yet most senators have supported Duterte in the past two years. (READ: EJKs, corruption, China: How the Senate backs Duterte and allies)

Abao, however, said the 17th Congress must stop using coercion just to pass priority bills.  

“Number one would be to rectify the mistakes…. The Speaker especially should stop the coercive measures. I don’t think that has a place in a democratic body,” said Abao.  

She also suggested that the Senate and the House prioritize only the measures they would be able to finish.

“They shouldn’t start what they cannot finish. So don’t start an investigation just for grandstanding purposes. Then find a direction. Maybe it’s not a vision, but provide a direction that everyone can buy into, not just the pro-Duterte [groups],” Abao said. 

DEBATES. Senators gesture during one of their plenary sessions in 2018. File photo from Senate PRIB

For now, Abao said it is important to assess the effectiveness of the 17th Congress not just based on the number of laws it has passed, but what kind of laws it is making.

“I think what you should be looking for when you look at the laws they are making [is to determine] what problems they are solving. What problems are they solving and towards what direction are they bringing our country?” said Abao. 

“For me, passing these laws is okay if you have even just a sliver of a vision of becoming a welfare state. But for me, as long as there is no vision, it doesn’t mean anything. You’re just popular,” she added. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.