Pandemic challenge marks 18th Congress

THE House of Representatives on Wednesday ended the 18th Congress, highlighting its 3-year achievements, including laws to help the country navigate through and emerge stronger from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In his valedictory speech, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco said the 18th Congress was a key and steady partner of President Duterte in passing laws that promoted economic development, strengthened the administration of justice and the rule of law, enhanced the protection of labor and social welfare, improved the quality of and increased access to education and information, enhanced our health and emergency response system, and strengthened our political and governmental institutions.

“Despite the many challenges that happened during my tenure as your Speaker, we have risen and proven ourselves to be One Congress, ready to serve our people,” Velasco told his colleagues.

“One Congress, ready to scrutinize the national budget, to pass laws, to conduct hearings, to provide oversight on the implementation of laws, and to generally make it easier for the next Congress and its leadership, to continue the legislative work for the sake of our kababayans,” he added.

He said the pandemic forced the House leadership to be dynamic, innovative and proactive.

“Despite the lingering threat of Covid-19, we approved much-needed emergency pandemic response measures, and despite some political challenges, managed to pass the 2021 and 2022 national budgets on time.”

Despite restrictions in the workplace, House Majority Leader and Leyte First District Rep. Martin G. Romualdez, for his part, said lawmakers worked relentlessly and managed to adopt and approve on third reading at least 1,600 legislative measures since the start of the 18th Congress on July 22, 2019.

According to Romualdez, more than 300 of these measures had been enacted into law, a number of which were crafted to address the ill effects brought by the pandemic.

He said the most significant of the laws passed were the Bayanihan 1 and 2, which allowed the release of billions of pesos for pandemic response.

Moreover, Velasco also listed some of the vital pieces of legislation he labeled “Tulong, Tatag, Tapang and Malasakit.”

He said the 18th Congress passed key economic laws or “Tulong” bills that are expected to facilitate the country’s recovery from the pandemic, including the amendments to the Retail Trade Liberalization Act, the Foreign Investments Act, and the Public Service Act.

According to Velasco, the passage of these economic liberalization laws marks an important landmark meant to ease restrictions and will help bring in projected investment leads of $100 billion over a two-year period, and create more jobs for Filipinos that would help drive the country’s economic recovery.

Aside from the Bayanihan laws, Velasco said the outgoing Congress also passed several laws as our “Tugon” measures for the pandemic, such as the vaccine procurement law and the Streamlining Government Services in Times of National Emergency Act.

He said the best “Tugon” for the pandemic remains the timely passage of the 2021 and 2022 national budgets, to fund the pandemic-response programs of the national government.

The 18th Congress, he said, also passed other social and consumer protection laws such as Republic Act (RA) 11765, which gives more protection to consumers of financial services, and RA 11712, which grants mandatory continuing benefits to our health-care frontliners.

Velasco also cited institution-building, or what he called the “Tatag” bills including RA 11768, strengthening the Sangguniang Kabataan; RA 11713, supporting teacher education; RA 11709, creating fixed terms for key officers of the armed forces; and RA 11697, paving the way for the development of electric vehicle industries.

The House leader cited what he called “Malasakit” laws such as RA 11767, seeking to promote the rights of foundlings or abandoned children; RA 11650 ensuring inclusive education for learners with disabilities; and RA 11648 providing stronger protection for children against sexual abuse and exploitation by raising the age of sexual consent from 12 to 16.

Velasco noted the enactment of laws that promote justice and peace, such as the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Act, and RA 11696 or the Marawi Siege Victims Compensation Act.

Romualdez, meanwhile, noted that no Congress in modern times had experienced a global pandemic that required people to stay indoors, limit their movement and prevent public gatherings.

“I am in awe of the dedication to service and fortitude displayed by Members of Congress and our House employees. They worked beyond the call of duty, at times of uncertainty and abnormality, to make the 18th Congress one of the most productive ever,” Romualdez said.

“The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic posed a big challenge for us here in the 18th Congress. How do we resume work and protect our people from the ravages of the pandemic when senior citizens and people with comorbidities are discouraged from going out of their residences?” he said.

“It was a good move to embrace technology that allowed House members to participate in all proceedings through electronic means including email, teleconferencing, and messaging apps,” he added. Despite the hybrid sessions, Romualdez said a number of congressmen and House employees still reported for work daily at the risk of catching the virus.

For his part, House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Joey Sarte Salceda said the last day of the 18th Congress caps what has been one of the most difficult periods in the country’s recent history.

“First, we stuck to the idea that tax breaks are tax expenditures, and should therefore justify their costs through overriding economic gains. Fiscal incentives reform has been a fight I have been doing since the 1990s, when I first proposed the Subsidy Council Act, which became the core of the CREATE Law. The idea that fiscal incentives should only be given when their benefits significantly exceed their costs, and only when they absolutely necessary to trigger a certain desirable economic outcome, is now in our law books,” he said.

“We have also introduced the idea of accountability in tax incentives in the law. There is a clawback clause in CREATE: If you bloat your promised benefits to get tax incentives, you have to pay the state back when those benefits fail to materialize,” he added.

Salceda said these tax reforms grew revenues significantly, to the tune of around P229 billion annually.

“The idea that fiscal space should be expanded in good times [2019] so that we have something to lean on during bad times [Covid era in 2020-2022] is now a principle that fiscal and economic managers can abide in succeeding administrations. This was not the mindset during the Aquino era, or even prior. Back then, we only raised taxes once the crisis was impending,” he said.

Congress also introduced taxes on POGO and proposed taxes on e-sabong, taking into account the increasingly digital nature of gaming.

Meanwhile, the House also paid tribute to nine members who died while serving in the 18th Congress, saying they “served as our collective inspiration to continue our work for the people.” The nine are Representatives Resurreccion Acop (Antipolo City, second district), Rodolfo Albano (LPGMA Partylist), Marissa Andaya (Camarines Sur, first district), Carlos Cojuangco (Tarlac, first district), Francisco Datol Jr. (Senior Citizens Partylist), Raul del Mar (Cebu City, first district), Nestor Fongwan (Benguet), Marisol Panotes (Camarines Norte, second district), and Ditas Ramos (Sorsogon, second district).

Image credits: Robinson Ninal Jr./Malacañang Presidential Photographers Division via AP

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