Senate of the Philippines

Unfinished business, campaign promises: The 1st bills filed by 19th Congress senators

Mara Cepeda
Unfinished business, campaign promises: The 1st bills filed by 19th Congress senators

IN SESSION. Senators holds session on May 23, 2022.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

From SOGIE equality to defining rest hours of workers, here are the individual priority bills of the 19th Congress senators
Unfinished business, campaign promises: The 1st bills filed by 19th Congress senators

MANILA, Philippines – The new batch of Philippine senators have started filing their priority bills even before the official opening of the 19th Congress on July 25. 

The first measures filed by senators can give the public a glimpse of what issues or advocacies the legislators plan to address during their time in office. These pet bills also set the tone for the upper house’s legislative agenda in the next six years under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 

Rappler studied the first measures filed by each senator and found that the bills fall under four main categories: Settling unfinished business, crafting a general direction for key sectors, specific reforms in the government’s education and social welfare programs, and tax reform.

Senators usually arrive at a consensus in setting the chamber’s legislative agenda as a whole. This list is traditionally decided after the President announces the priority bills during his the State of the Nation Address (SONA). This means the pet bills of the 19th Congress senators may not necessarily find its way in Marcos’ SONA priority measures.

Unfinished business

Four senators re-filed bills they championed for in the past but were not passed into laws under the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. 

Senator Grace Poe immediately re-filed the bill requiring Filipinos to register ownership of their SIM cards and use their real names when creating social media accounts. 

Poe had sponsored a version of this measure in the past 18th Congress as chairperson of the Senate committee on public services. But Duterte vetoed it due to the provision designed to help “unmask” trolls on social media. 

Duterte’s presidency saw the rise of disinformation networks, where trolls are able to get away with spreading lies through anonymous accounts online.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, the lone opposition candidate to win a Senate seat in the May polls, is once again pushing for the bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.

More popularly known as the SOGIE equality bill, the measure has been repeatedly filed by Hontiveros for years, but it was always met with strong opposition from conservative senators. The furthest the SOGIE equality bill has gone in the Philippine Congress was its third and final reading passage in the House of Representatives in 2017

Senator Ronald dela Rosa, a former chief of police before become a legislator, has also renewed his push to revive the death penalty in the Philippines. In the 19th Congress, Dela Rosa only wants to push for the capital punishment for high-level drug traffickers. 

This isn’t the first time legislators tried to reimpose the death penalty. Several Duterte-allied lawmakers have tried pushing this in the past six years. The 17th Congress, under then-House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, managed to pass a bill imposing the death penalty for certain drug crimes in 2017, but it did not fly in the Senate. 

Senator Bong Go, meanwhile, has not given up on the creation of a new Department of Disaster Resilience (DRR), one of the measures that Duterte has repeatedly asked Congress to pass in his State of the Nation Addresses. 

The DRR would primarily be responsible for overseeing and coordinating the preparation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of disaster and climate change resilience plans and programs. It aims to streamline the government’s response in times of disasters, a process that usually involves multiple agencies at the moment. The House passed a version of the DRR bill in 2020, but senators failed to prioritize Go’s measure.

Tax reform

Two veteran senators – Koko Pimentel and a returning Chiz Escudero – both placed tax reform as their legislative priorities in the 19th Congress.

Pimentel’s bill in particular is timely as it seeks to suspend the value-added tax and excise taxes on fuel, at a time when Filipinos are dealing with the soaring prices of fuel products, a worldwide effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Philippines does not produce its own oil and is dependent upon supplies on oil imports.

Pimentel, who would likely become the next Senate minority leader, introduces amendments to Sections 106, 107, and 148 of the National Internal Revenue Code to allow the suspension of VAT and excise taxes on fuel when world prices increase by certain amounts per barrel. 

Escudero’s tax reform proposal aims to give more autonomy to local government units (LGUs), drawing from his experience as former governor of Sorsogon. 

The veteran legislator’s pet bill in the 19th Congress seeks to prohibit “any form of interference” by the national government on LGUs’ national tax allotment and other locally generated revenues. This would be done through Escudero’s proposed amendments to the Local Government Code. 

“Based from my experiences as governor, local officials have a better knowledge on how to effectively run their localities. They know what’s happening on the ground and they know what’s best for their constituents. Certainly, they are also more knowledgeable than any government officials who are just issuing directives and orders from their air-conditioned offices in Manila,” Escudero said in a statement. 

Setting the general direction for target sectors

Eight senators – a mix of neophytes, returning, and incumbent legislators – decided to begin their 19th Congress journey by authoring bills laying down a general vision and direction for key sectors like trade, public health, education, infrastructure, agriculture, and labor. 

Senator Sonny Angara, who will retain his chairmanship of the committee on finance, filed his proposed Exports and Investments Act. It aims to strengthen the exports sector and allow Filipinos to avail of more diversified and “sophisticated” products and services through amendments to the Export Development Act of 1994. 

Senator Nancy Binay re-filed her bill that would set up a preparedness plan for future pandemics and other public health emergencies, a measure created as a response to the impacts of the persisting coronavirus pandemic since 2020. 

Binay’s measure would require the creation of a Pandemic Emergency Council, composed by key Cabinet members and government officials, which would craft an integrated policy, strategic direction, and an emergency plan in times of pandemics and public health emergencies. 

Incoming Senate president Migz Zubiri, meanwhile, filed as his top pet bill a measure that would establish specialty hospitals in regions outside Metro Manila, with the goal of making healthcare more accessible. These medical facilities would be patterned after specialty hospitals currently located in Metro Manila, like the Philippine Health Center, the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, and the Philippine Cancer Center. 

Senator Pia Cayetano’s top priority bill focused on the creation of an education roadmap, a reflection of the veteran lawmaker’s advocacy to better assist Filipino students in facing the real world. 

Cayetano’s proposed Education Roadmap Act aims to produce graduates who are “well-rounded and competitive” and can meet the demands of industries and the knowledge-based global economy. 

“Aside from acquiring the so-called ‘four Cs’ of 21st Century skills – namely, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity – this bill is primarily aimed to help our students regain our edge in English proficiency, which we are fast losing,” said Cayetano in a media statement. 

Her brother, former House speaker and returning senator Alan Peter Cayetano, wants Filipino cultural and moral values to be better promoted in schools via his proposed National Values, Etiquette, and Moral Uprightness Act. The bill would make the education secretary as head of a new Commission on Filipino Values, which would craft a program to promote these values in educational institutions. 

Alan Peter Cayetano was the running mate and former foreign affairs secretary of Duterte, who gained international notoriety for his crass remarks and abusive policies. 

The top priority bill of Senator Cynthia Villar is also in tune with her continued chairmanship of the Senate committee on agriculture, food, and agrarian reform. The country’s richest senator has filed her proposed Livestock, Poultry, and Dairy Development and Competitiveness Act. It sets policies aiming to improve food sustainability and sufficiency as the Philippines reels from the effects of the African swine fever and bird flu outbreaks. 

Villar said this measure, coupled with her proposed yellow corn development bill, can also help provide better income to farmers.

Infrastructure, meanwhile, is the top concern of two senators allied with President Marcos: Mark Villar and JV Ejercito. This does not come as a surprise for Mark Villar in particular, as he was previously the public works and highways chief under the Duterte administration. Villar is also the son of Senator Cynthia Villar.

Mark Villar even dubbed his pet bill as the “Build, Build, Build Act,” named after Duterte’s infrastructure program. Mark Villar’s bill would craft a 30-year national infrastructure program, helping ensure continuity in the government’s infrastructure projects from one administration to the next. 

This is similar to the proposed Philippine Comprehensive Infrastructure Master Plan being proposed by returning senator JV Ejercito in his top priority bill. He said this plan can serve as a blueprint for major infrastructure projects that would be implemented for decades, regardless of who is the sitting president. This infrastructure plan is also designed to help generate jobs for Filipinos.

Senator Joel Villanueva, the so-called “Tesdaman” of the chamber, is pushing for his “Trabaho Para sa Lahat ng Pilipino Act” that would establish a national employment action plan. It generally sets the government’s direction for job creation and would ensure the continued implementation of the National Employment Recovery Strategy (NERS) of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). 

“Since the NERS set its targets only up to this year, we aim to extend it and transform it into the National Employment Action Plan to go beyond the target of creating 2 million jobs for the next few years. Job creation should be sustained based on the prevailing socioeconomic trends while facing any crisis,” Villanueva said in a statement. 

Campaign promises

The top priority measures of the remaining members of the chamber focus on amendments or new legislation aimed to fulfill their campaign promises in the areas of labor conditions and social welfare programs.

The pet bills of senators Jinggoy Estrada, Francis Tolentino, and Raffy Tulfo all concern the plight of Filipino laborers. 

Senator Jinggoy Estrada wants to strengthen the National Wages and Productivity Commission Act, a part of his campaign promise to reform the labor sector. The measure would make the DTI chief the ex-officio chair of the commission and mandate the inclusion of a productivity and quality expert from the private sector as well. 

Senator Francis Tolentino’s pet bill defines rest hours of workers and bars companies from requiring its staff to render work during these rest hours, unless with consent from the employee. Contacting employees during their mandated rest hours would also be prohibited. 

In lobbying for his bill, Tolentino argued the work-from-home and telecommuting arrangements that were put in place due to the pandemic have blurred the lines between work and the personal time and space of employees. 

Broadcaster turned senator Raffy Tulfo’s priority measure aims to penalize employers who fail to give the proper salaries and benefits to employees. His staff, however, has yet to issue a full copy of his proposed “wage theft” law. 

Reforms in the education sector are the priorities of senators Win Gatchalian and Loren Legarda. 

Teachers’ welfare, topped the legislative concerns of Gatchalian, who is also keeping his chairmanship of the Senate committee on basic education, arts, and culture. Gatchalian’s pet bill in the 19th Congress would adjust the salary grades of Teachers I, II, and III to a grade higher than their currently monthly pay. 

Legarda’s priority bill is called the “One Tablet, One Student Act,” which would provide every student studying in public elementary and high schools, as well as state universities and colleges with their own tablet. The returning senator, who is now the most senior member of the chamber with 18 years in her belt, said her measure was designed to help students adapt to the online learning system that was implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Senator Lito Lapid, meanwhile, wants to increase the benefits of indigent persons with disabilities (PWDs). In his bill, all qualified PWDs would receive P2,000 monthly from the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Senator Imee Marcos’s top pet bill in the 19th Congress is the re-filed version of her proposed Emancipation of Tenants Act. The bill aims to write off all unpaid interest payments, amortizations, penalties, and other fees from the loans of agrarian reform beneficiaries under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

Senator Bong Revilla filed a bill that would provide cash grants not just to centenarians, but even senior citizens who reach 80 years old and 90 years old. Under the actor turned senator’s pet measure, 80-year-old seniors would receive P10,000, then another P10,000 when they reach 90, then P100,000 upon reaching the age of 100.

Actor turned legislator Robin Padilla, who topped the 2022 senatorial race, wants to push for the equal use of Filipino and other local languages in his top priority bill. Padilla’s proposed Equal Use of Languages Act would push for the use of the English, Filipino, and other language in government issuances and documents. 

Padilla also told reporters on Monday, July 18, that his pet bill aims to ensure that those charged of any crime would be able to fully understand their sentence.

“‘Pag sinentensyahan ka, dapat nababasa mo sentensya mo sa salitang Pilipino, alam mo. Kasi minsan – totoo ito, galing ako kulungan – naintindihan lang ng bilanggo ang sentensya niya ang number lang. Pero bakit siya nasentensya, ‘di niya alam,” said Padilla. 

(When you are sentenced, you should be able to understand it it’s in the Filipino language. Sometimes – and this happens because I came from jail – some inmates only understand the number of years they’ll serve in prison. But as to why they were sentenced, they have no idea.)

In 1994, Padilla was convicted of illegal possession of firearms and was imprisoned in 1995. Former president Fidel Ramos granted him pardon in 1998, but it did not fully restore his civil and political rights. 

Padilla later received executive clemency from Duterte in November 2016, fully restoring his rights. Six years later, Padilla successfully gunned for the Senate with promises to lobby for anti-criminality measures. – Rappler.com

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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.