COVERING the 8th Congress’ upper chamber was not for slackers. The sense of the 24 senators elected in the first elections after the dictatorship was brought down was to pass laws, either to rebuild the shattered institutions or give flesh to what the 1987 Constitution wrote, but needed actual laws to work. Some of the elected senators were showboaters but the majority just worked quietly simply because there was no incentive to showboat. It was just the newspapers, television and radio then. It was the pre-Internet era and no one in the legislative bodies posted social media accounts of their supposed greatness. Quiet and plodding work from the legislature, looking back, complemented the media environment of that time and age.
I covered the 8th Congress for a major daily and the wondrous fact of legislative coverage was this: the reporter had to focus on how laws were written and passed, the whole (tedious and boring) process of crafting major public policy. Serious legislation was the stuff that the editors wanted their reporters to cover, not personal antics and ad hominem attacks. That would come later.
On which senator did the most inspired legislation to put in place the social safety nets, the legislation to fulfill the old doctrine of parens patriae, the reporters had a consensus. It was “the senator from Baler.” This was Edgardo J. Angara who died on May 13, at 83. Angara was the most prodigious social safety net writer of the 8th Congress and his body of legislation now makes up a substantive body of iconic and very critical state institutions.
Free High School. The Senior Citizens Act. The PhilHealth. The major safety nets and modern pillars of the social contract. The Tesda and the CHED came out of his efforts to reform the archaic structure of the then DECS, the education department saddled with the handling of both sports and culture. Even SEJA, as his staff called him, only had a small inkling then of the important role that the Tesda would play in the national employment generation efforts.
The Free High School Act, was, of course, an imperative. And Mr. Angara, fresh from his presidency of the University of the Philippines, and with a keen awareness that the high drop-out rate would kill every dream of an emergent nation, was obligated to pass that law. But the other initiatives he pushed were not really his “natural fit.” He wrote and pushed for the passing of the Senior Citizens Act even before the elderly became a critical mass that sought equal attention from government.
The PhilHealth law was written from the wreckage of the Medicare, which was deemed to have been inadequate to providing health care insurance. The Tesda was created as an offshoot of the efforts to reform and reorient the education department and make it focus on its true mission, which is basic education.
What were viewed then as routine efforts at social safety legislation have turned into enduring institutions that affect and change lives, virtual life-changers. Again, who can argue about the importance of PhilHealth, the Senior Citizen discount card and the Tesda to the broader society?
The Free High School Law has morphed into something bigger and ambitious – Free College. Mr. Angara started the whole push for free education and he did so as soon as the 8th Congress convened.
Mr. Angara was not part of the headline-generating Senate investigations of the 8th Congress, the inquiry into the workings of the Presidential Commission on Good Government in particular. The reason was that at this point he had been meeting with academics, education experts, what we now call as the “ education stakeholders, “ to start a more important inquiry – a bipartisan effort to look into the problems of the education sector. The bipartisan Congressional Commission on Education, in a pioneering move, was formed to look in-depth into the many problems of the education sector and recommend solutions.
The inquiry that stretched for months and mostly away from the media glare produced the most definitive study of the education sector, a congressional study of rare empirics and data. Mr. Angara, a classic grind, led the team of senators and congressmen that pored over figures on teachers shortage, classroom shortage, textbook to student ratio, the drop-out rate for every educational level and tougher topics such as educational investments.
The EDCOM study was as massive and as comprehensive as your typical economic thesis. It was a long inquiry that really led to structural reforms, investment reforms and many other changes in the moribund and neglected education sector.
Which, between the EDCOM and the Agricom or the bipartisan Agricultural Commission on Agricultural Modernization, turned out to be the more important study remains a debatable issue among legislative staffers even today. But one fact stands out. After the EdCom Mr. Angara moved to dig deeper into the problems of the agriculture sector, which was then the sector that employed most Filipinos of working age and the biggest contributor to GDP, but was hobbled by inadequate support and government neglect.
Like the EdCom, the Agricom produced a comprehensive study on the agriculture sector and its many woes – and recommended solutions that were fresh and unorthodox. The Agricom, like the EdCom, was data- and research-driven. Issues against the viability of the big-dam irrigation strategy was first raised by the Agricom. It pushed for the establishment of zones of agricultural productivity .
In this age of polarized politics, Mr. Angara’s term as an oppositionist Senate President was spent passing the reform laws, mostly economic in orientation, that the new presidency of Fidel Ramos needed to move the country forward. No politics. Just a shared agenda with love of country as bind.