2012 a banner year for Aquino’s Congress

Carmela Fonbuena

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The same faces and surnames have monopolized Congress for decades. What is different in the 15th Congress? President Benigno Aquino III.

MANILA, Philippines – This is a hard question: What is the biggest accomplishment of Congress in 2012?

Is it the removal of former Chief Justice Renato Corona? The enactment of the Reproductive Health law? The sin tax measure? The Desaparecidos law? The on time passage of the 2013 budget?

You have to give it to the 15th Congress: 2012 is an exceptional year. It made history a number of times.

It’s the first time a Supreme Court Chief Justice was removed from office. The Desaparecidos law is the first of its kind in Asia. The RH law has been pending over the last 14 years. The sin tax law, for 15 years.

The same faces and surnames have monopolized Congress for decades. Who knew that this year, they’d finally tackle and close the most divisive and most controversial measures that have languished in the legislative mill for over a decade?

Who knew that they could consistently pass the budget on time, for 3 years in a row now, after consistently being tardy in handling the annual budget measure over the past decade?

The gamechanger

What is different in the 15th Congress?

President Benigno Aquino III.

There is separation of powers between Malacañang and Congress under the Philippine constitution. But it’s more a suggestion than a rule. In Philippine Congresses, what Presidents want they almost always get.

Critics call it dictatorship. Supporters call it leadership.

“He uses the powers of his office to push for what he thinks is for the common good of the people,” said Batanes Rep Henedina Abad, a close ally of Aquino and wife of budget secretary Butch Abad.

Abad was among those who worked hard to push for sin tax and RH laws in particular. “These two bills have been held in abeyance for years and years because of elite power. Now, we are really attending to the needs of the people. In the process, we – the congresspersons – also empower ourselves,” she told Rappler.

The President’s power over Congress is more pronounced in the House of Representatives, where members are notorious for switching political parties everytime there is a new president.

The Senate, on the other hand, has always been the more independent chamber. But 2012 showed that there’s nothing impossible to a determined president.

Stubborn determination

There’s a little irony here. Before becoming President, Aquino was Tarlac representative for 9 years and a senator for 3 years. He had a lackluster performance. In all his 12 years in Congress, he failed to shepherd a single one of his major bills into law.

But as President, Aquino is sensational. He showed tremendous political will – some say stubborn determination – in spite of a strong and well-oiled opposition.

Rep Abad said all these bills were pushed according to the President’s priorities.

A separate administration source told Rappler that Pro-RH representatives wanted to push the RH bill around April, at the height of the impeachment trial.

Aquino did not agree. It coincided with the Lent season. He wanted to respect the Catholic Church. 

Also, the sin tax and budget laws had to go first.

The battle always started in the House of Representatives, where it is often more difficult given the overwhelming number of the chamber’s members. The House has 283 members. The Senate has 23.

Careful timing

Corona’s impeachment started 2012 with a bang. It was unprecented, a class of its own. The trial – a very painful process it turned out – put the country at a standstill. It was Corona against the entire government machinery.

On May 28, the Senate voted 20-3 to convict Corona.

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda cited it as one of the administration’s achievements in 2012. “The message is clear: If a Chief Justice can be impeached – and a former president put under hospital arrest for alleged plunder and electoral sabotage – then so can anyone; a crime is a crime, regardless of wealth or status in society,” he said.

Only a few days after Corona’s conviction, the House of Representatives on June 5 pulled a suprise when it passed the sin tax bill on 3rd and final reading. Its early passage allowed the Senate time to pass it in November. (All tax measures must originate from the House).

The Northern bloc – representatives of tobacco-growing provinces – and the tobacco industry have succeeded in blocking the measure in the last decade. But not this Congress. Aquino needs the money.

To make it more palatable, the sin tax measure was packaged as a health measure more than a revenue law. In the approved law, bulk of the expected P34 billion additional revenue was earmarked to fund government’s ambitious Universal Healthcare Agenda.

Next in the agenda was the 2013 budget.

The most controversial provision in the budget was the huge allocation – a whopping P44 billion – for the government’s ambitious but widely questioned Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program. 2013 is an election year, after all, and administration critics warned against its possible abuse. Still, the 2013 budget breezed through Congress.

Passing the budget on time is a huge deal. Re-enacted budgets – a common practice during the previous administration – have proven to be prone to abuse because it gives Malacañang more leeway in spending government funds.

Finally, the RH law. Never have Congressional deliberations been so highly charged.

The RH bill was a very problematic measure. On many occasions, the House was forced to adjourn session because its critics – also a substantial number – left the plenary. It didn’t only hurt the RH bill, it hurt all other bills on the day’s agenda.

The big push happened after the sin tax and budget laws were passed by both legislative chambers. It was a long and rough road for the RH bill. But Aquino was determined to follow its timeline to have an RH law before Christmas.

And then a surprise. Aquino signed the Desaparecidos law. The “Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012” that makes the crime of enforced disappearance punishable by life imprisonment.

It is the first of its kind in Asia.

The measure quietly passed through Congress. The law states that a crime of enforced disappearance is considered committed if 1) a victim is deprived of liberty; 2) the perpetrator is the State or agents of the State; and 3) information on the whereabouts of the victim is concealed or denied.

It makes enforced disappearance a crime distinct from kidnapping, serious illegal detention, murder or any common crime.

More battles ahead

Administration allies refer to the 15th Congress as the golden opportunity to push for the controversial measures. There are those who say the 15th Congress is the only chance for the RH bill in particular.

In the next Congress, everything will be highly political with the presidential elections looming. One prospective presidential candidate is known to be anti-RH.

The 15th Congress is not over. It could still pass more measures. It has 9 session days left between the resumptin of session on January 21 and its adjournment for the campaign period on February 7.

For one, the Marcos compensation bill is two steps away from President Aquino’s office: 1) A bicameral conference committee meeting to reconcile and approve its final version and 2) ratification by Congress.

Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III is not giving up on the Freedom of Information bill, too. The Senate has passed its version of the FOI bill. In the House, it is yet to be sponsored in the plenary.

Tañada said it can still be passed into law if quorum will not be questioned and if debates won’t take long.

The great thing about putting closure to controversial bills is it allows Congress to move on to other important issues.

Big measures definitely await the next 16th Congress. Among the more important proposals that need to be legislated are the creation of the Bangsamoro territory and the increase of government share on mining operations.

The coming elections is crucial in determining the fate of these proposals. Aquino has been very vocal about his appeal to the Filipino people to vote for his allies in the Senate and the House of Representatives. He wants a Congress that will cooperate with him.

Aquino’s critics call him a dictator. His supporters call him a true leader. – Rappler.com

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