The House of Representatives’ legislative agenda

Feliciano Belmonte Jr
Full text of the speech of House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. at the House of Representatives, during the opening of the Third Regular Session of the 15th Congress

MANILA, Philippines – We open the Third Regular Session with renewed vigor and a sense of urgency to complete the vital reforms we initiated to propel our country towards higher growth that will ensure our people’s improved well-being.

We ended the Second Regular Session on a high note with the enactment into law of a number of landmark measures among which are: the inclusive-growth-supporting 2012 General Appropriations Act, the groundbreaking educational system reform law institutionalizing kindergarten education, the substantive amendments giving more teeth to the Anti-Money Laundering Act; and the Terrorism Financing and Suppression Act that prevents the conduct of illegal financial transactions.

We also passed into law five LEDAC priority measures, namely, the laws on Promoting Financial Viability and Discipline in GOCCs, Rationalizing the Nightwork Prohibition on Women Workers, Synchronizing Elections for Elective Officials of the ARMM, Extension of the Lifeline Rate Implementation that amends the EPIRA and the Extension of the Joint Congressional Power Commission’s existence.

Fifteen LEDAC priority measures were also passed on Third Reading among which were the law Restructuring Excise Taxes on Alcohol and Tobacco products, the Fiscal Incentives Rationalization Act, the Data Privacy Act, the Amendment to Strengthen the Anti-Money Laundering Act, the Philippine Maritime Zones Law, the Philippine Archipelagic Sea Lanes Act, the Whistleblowers Act, and the Universal Mandatory Healthcare Coverage Act.

In addition to these LEDAC priority bills, we have also approved on third reading and transmitted to the Senate a total of 220 national bills and 551 local bills. We shall work closely with the leadership and the concerned committees of the Senate to ensure swift passage of these pending measures in the Senate.

Redoubling efforts

All these fruits of our collective hard work and dedication, have strengthened the faith of our people in this institution.

We must redouble our efforts in this third and last session of this Congress. Much more needs to be done and we are committed to do more in the service of our people.

As you are all well aware, the gains from our labors in the last two years are now manifest and palpable in the lives of the people. Our country’s real Gross Domestic Product grew by 6.4 percent in the first quarter of 2012, exceeding the market’s expectation of 4.8 percent. This is the highest growth posted among ASEAN and other neighboring countries, excepting only China.

Sound macroeconomic fundamentals have made our domestic economy resilient. Government has accelerated spending. Inflation remains within target. External and fiscal positions are highly sustainable, and our financial system remains strong.

The impressive first quarter performance serves as the springboard for growth in the next three quarters. Growth will be supported by focused government spending in anti-poverty programs, human resource development, and infrastructure.

Spending in these areas is critical as the 2015 deadline for the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals looms closer. For this and other development goals, the swift enactment of the 2013 General Appropriations Act clearly is imperative.

All these positive developments have enhanced our country’s competitive position, drawing positive attention from international finance and credit institutions. Moodys upgraded our credit rating to only one notch below investment grade. Likewise, the Philippines improved by ten notches in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report for 2012.

Break the boom-bust cycle

My dear Colleagues, current developments are clearly providing us with more windows of opportunity to propel our country forward and to achieve goals many considered impossible to achieve. The momentum for higher growth is here. We need to ride on this momentum, build upon it and sustain it in the long term.

We must break the boom-and-bust cycle. We need to attain much higher and more consistent rates of growth to eventually eradicate poverty. We need to bring in more and better investments.

I cannot over emphasize the fact that we need more investments to create more jobs. More investments includes more foreign investments. We need to bring in the capital and technologies that will keep our workers productively employed. We also need a bigger market to allow us to produce more and maximize the productive use of our resources.

We must encourage greater competition not only to improve the efficiency of our local producers and manufacturers to provide Filipino consumers with wider and better choices in terms of goods and services, but also their competitiveness in the larger international market.

It is high time that we revisit the economic provisions of the Constitution which, to my mind, restrict our economic progress and growth.

As UP professor emeritus Gerardo Sicat pointed out, the restrictive economic provisions in our Constitution “leashed us to a post with a short rope from which we could only move with limited freedom”. The prohibitions to foreigners on land ownership and on the exploitation of natural resources, and the nationality requirements on the ownership and operation of public utilities, mass media and educational institutions have their origins in the 1935 Constitution, and were borrowed from great socialist-oriented constitutions at that time.

But consider the following: What were China and Russia in 1935, and what are they today?

Countries are like living creatures. They have to adapt to changing conditions to survive and develop. We are witnessing rapid and radical developments in digital and information technology. WE cannot afford to lag far behind. Dramatic economic, political, and social upheavals all over the world have altered and redefined territorial boundaries and diplomatic relations.

First step towards relaxing restrictions

The Filipino First Policy is but a step towards the inclusive growth we are seeking. It has not brought us the economic growth we dreamed to achieve. We need to find new paths, and take new steps away from the restrictive protectionist economic path we have been following for so long, so that economic benefits from the use of our resources can redound to the welfare of the many, especially the poor, and not to the benefit only of those who control our economy.

I am not proposing to change the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution overnight. What I am suggesting is for us to take the first step towards relaxing the restrictive economic provisions of our Constitution to allow Congress to enact the laws that would define foreign participation and nationality requirements in strategic sectors of our economy. Those who advocate the maintenance of restrictions will have all the time and opportunity to convince Congress otherwise.

The productive capabilities and resources of our country need to be unleashed – not shackled by a constitutional straightjacket that denies from our people the benefits that can flow from expanding access to their utilization by Filipinos and foreigners under such terms that will continue to preserve the national patrimony for the well-being of the Filipino.

Let’s be assured that concerns on charter change will not diminish our attention from other equally pressing matters that need to be addressed.

To further encourage investments and increase employment, we must accelerate the upgrading and modernization of the country’s infrastructure. We shall prioritize infrastructure spending in the 2013 national budget, and complement this with amendments to the Build-Operate-Transfer Law to facilitate greater private sector participation.

We should support these policy directions with the passage of a complementary Anti-Trust Act that establishes a genuine level playing field among firms and effectively reduces transaction costs and risks, and an Open Skies policy to allow the growth of a more liberalized commercial aviation industry and pave the way for more tourist arrivals to boost our tourism sector – one of the fastest job-generating sectors of our economy today.

The enhancement of an environment conducive to investments and job creation is not enough. We must ensure that these investments remain in the country. Thus, it is important to address persistent power supply constraints and high power costs by passing amendments to the EPIRA. Having a stable power supply, and competitive power rates, will revive our local manufacturing industries and provide opportunities for unskilled and rural workers.

We must also strengthen the National Electrification Administration by amending its Charter so that it can better undertake a comprehensive rural electrification program with electric cooperatives as its implementing arm.

Good governance, fiscal responsibility

Our continued work on measures that seek to enhance the overall business environment will certainly prove crucial. Measures on the Rationalization of the Charters of the Philippine Ports Authority, MARINA, and the Civil Aeronautics Board require our attention and incisive study. The National Transport Policy Act which aims to set the parameters and direction for the development of the country’s transportation system also demand our utmost attention and swift action.

To promote good governance, we should amend the Government Procurement Reform Act, so that the procurement of goods shall be based on relevant characteristics and performance requirements, and not on brand names. We shall also amend the Charter of the Bangko Sentral to strengthen the BSP’s oversight powers.

In the same pursuit of good governance, we shall continue to work towards a regime of greater peace and security. We shall therefore facilitate legislative processing of the following measures: Amendment to the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act, the Extension of the AFP Modernization Program to rationalize security sector reform and modernization initiatives towards greater transparency and accountability, and the Amendments to the National Defense and Security Act to define and clarify the national defense policies.

To keep our country’s fiscal house in better shape, let us work together to pass a Fiscal Responsibility Act.

To promote rural growth and address urbanization problems, we will push for the passage of a National Land Use and Management Act and the Institution of a Land Administration Reform Act. These measures will ensure the strategic use of our land resources.

Education, reproductive health

To strengthen our human capital resources, we shall pass the K+12 measure – the act Enhancing the Curriculum of the Basic Education System. Any successful attempt to reform our education system must start at the system’s building blocks – the early education phase. We must also pass the measure Expanding the Coverage of the Science and Technology Scholarship Program. In developed countries, more than half of overall growth is contributed by science and technology. We must give greater attention to science and technology in our own country if we are to join the ranks of the developed world.

The Reproductive Health Bill is already in plenary debate. It has been discussed from every possible perspective by advocates and opponents alike not only in this Congress but in past congresses. I think it is time we finally put it to a vote. Let the chips fall where they may. The same goes for the Freedom of Information Bill.

Even as we continue to deliberate upon and pass more vital measures, we shall continue to make the House of Representatives a bulwark of good governance.

The impeachment of a Chief Justice was a watershed event in our country’s history. It is a clear signal to the entire world that the Philippines is serious in its anti-corruption campaign. It proved that our democratic institutions do work and that we put the highest premium on exacting accountability in public service.

We are winning in many fronts. But the war is far from over. We must work harder to emancipate our people from the clutches of poverty, and liberate public office from the perils of corruption.

True, there are formidable challenges particularly in the face of the global economic crisis, and the constraints of the election period, as we begin our work in this Third and last Regular Session of the 15th Congress. But let us renew our resolve, let us continue to strengthen the legislative foundations of a brighter and more prosperous future for our country.

Carpe diem. Let us seize the day – together we shall again, with God’s help, prevail.

Thank you very much and congratulations.

Mabuhay tayong lahat. –

(This was the speech delivered by House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. at the House of Representatives during the opening of the 3rd regular session of Congress on Monday, July 23)

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