A discouraging legislative agenda

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

Earlier this week, the Aquino Administration quietly handed marching orders to the Legislature in the form of a “priority legislative agenda.” According to Chief Malacañang Talking Person Sonny Coloma, who was in turn quoting Presidential Legislative Liaison Office Secretary Manuel Mamba, President B.S. Aquino 3rd “expects” that at least 18 of the 29 measures on the list will be passed into law.

In past administrations, the way in which the work of the House of Representatives and the Senate was planned with respect to the objectives of the Executive was through discussion in the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac), which would meet at least quarterly as required by the law which created it. President Aquino, however, is above such petty things as “process” and “laws”; he has only ever called three meetings of the Ledac, the last one being nearly three years ago in February 2012.

The apparent fact that Congress has contentedly resigned itself to being about as pertinent as the 1940s-era Reichstag notwithstanding, its work package for the coming year is worth some examination. It is, unfortunately, a rather disappointing list of initiatives.

The top priority is passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which will implement the terms of the peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The BBL, as the measure is called here in the abbreviation-happy Philippines, has already been criticized by the MILF due to “deletions” of certain measures and is otherwise full of constitutional infirmities that will, if it passes, immediately land it in the Supreme Court. Some legislators are aware of this, of course, and have said they will work to try to correct things in the course of the legislative process. A few others have pointed out that the BBL should probably be rejected on the grounds that it amounts to a capitulation on the government’s part, partitioning the country in favor of a small political faction that represents a minority of the diverse people affected by measure, and whom the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference has declined to endorse.

That being the case, even though the BBL will likely survive its trip through Congress more or less intact, getting it passed will be a contentious, time-consuming effort that makes the “expectation” that at least 17 other items on Aquino’s wish list will be fulfilled unreasonably optimistic. For some of the items on the list, however, falling by the wayside due to lack of time to address them will actually be a good result, such as:

• The Freedom of Information Act: The Philippines desperately needs a law regularizing public access to government information, but what it does not need is the cynical attempt at imposing further restrictions that is being passed off as “the Palace version” of the bill.

• The Whistleblowers’ Protection Act: Not many people seem to realize it, but this is actually a part of the effort to quash any notions of “freedom of information.” With a proper FOI act, a measure to protect “whistleblowers” would not really be necessary; as it is, the proposed measure sets qualifications for “protection” that would likely discourage many would-be whistleblowers from coming forward. To some extent, this is not really a bad thing; far too many cases that should be subjected to a fair and objective legal process rely on hearsay as it is. Taken together with the mockery of the Freedom of Information proposal, however, it serves only as a further warning against questioning the government’s creeping authoritarianism.

• The Tax Incentives Management and Transparency Act and the Fiscal Incentives Rationalization: If this particular initiative was actually designed to improve efficiency and encourage investment it would be laudable, but of course that is not the point. It is being presented instead as a revenue-generating measure, dangling an estimate of some P10 billion in additional funding capture as an incentive. Coming from a regime that has shown it is very good at finding ways to hoard money and very bad at spending it on things that fall within its normal areas of responsibility, the measure confuses the word “rationalize” with the word “eliminate” in an almost insulting way.

• The Road Right-of-Way Law and some amendments to the Build-Operate-Transfer Law: This is an unfortunate combination of good and bad ideas. If the ROW measure was treated entirely separately, it would help to improve management of transportation and utility infrastructure and go a long way towards “cleaning up” the entire country, particularly in heavily-populated areas. It is being regarded, however, as a component of the public-private partnership approach to development, which is bad economics practice that should be removed entirely from the policy vocabulary.

There are a few items on the legislative laundry list that are worthwhile, such as an updated Mining Act, although the need to replace the adequately effective 1995 Mining Act was not a problem until B.S. Aquino created one by arbitrarily voiding it back in 2011.

Proposed amendments to the Cabotage Law for the shipping industry are also welcome, as they would improve the flow of goods and help to support more efficient port and Customs operations. An Antitrust Act has also been proposed, as has a long-overdue National Land Use Act, a Customs Modernization Act, and a Strategic Trade Management Act, the latter being an important measure for the Philippines’ integration into the Asean free market.

Even though these are useful initiatives, the likelihood that the legislature—which has spent most of the past four years disabusing everyone of the notion that the word “energetic” applies to it in any sense whatsoever—will actually tackle them this year is thin at best. Also discouraging is what is not on the list of priorities: Comprehensive tax reform, positive adjustments to foreign investment restrictions, the creation of a permanent disaster management agency, and significantly improving oversight and regulation of public utilities and transit, among other things. Clearly, the Aquino Administration has thrown in the towel with respect to any notion of actually governing the country and is instead focusing on collecting political and financial resources ahead of next year’s elections.



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