"Lawmakers say the budget is consistent with the priorities of President Duterte."
How do we assess the performance of the House of Representatives since the start of the 18th Congress?
The number of bills passed—more than 5,000—tells us that with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano at the helm, the Lower Chamber has been very productive. Many of the tax reform measures and economic reform bills of the Duterte administration have been swiftly passed by various committees and approved on third and final reading.
The most significant accomplishment of the House in its first two months, however, is the approval of House Bill No. 4228 or the 2020 General Appropriations Bill, just minutes after the plenary passed it on second reading. House members approved the GAB after nine straight session days and passed the budget bill in record time in line with Cayetano's commitment to lead a “relevant, responsible and reliable” Congress.
The House has already passed Package 2 Plus of the President’s comprehensive tax reform program—House Bill 1026—which aims to further increase taxes on alcohol products and electronic cigarettes. It also approved two of the Duterte administration’s priority bills: HB 304, the fourth CTRP package or the Passive Income and Financial Intermediary Taxation Act, seeks to simplify taxes on capital income and financial services, while HB 300 which amends the Foreign Investments Act, seeks to allow foreign investors to own small and medium-sized enterprises. Apart from these, the House finally approved HB 4157 or the proposed Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act representing Package 2 of the CTRP. Only Package 3 of the CTRP, which aims to reform the system of property valuation in the country, remains to be passed by the plenary.
Another bill that the President has endorsed to Congress for swift approval, the amendments to the Retail Trade Liberalization Act to allow foreign ownership of certain public utilities, was approved by the House Committee on Trade and Industry last September.
Instead of being lauded for its accomplishments, the House has been pilloried by Senator Panfilo Lacson and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon for the alleged presence of pork in the GAB approved by House.
Lacson, the Senate’s anti-pork crusader, claimed that each of the 22 deputy speakers will get P1.5 billion each in “pork barrel” funds on top of the P700 million that every House member will receive under the 2020 budget.
Several House leaders, including Deputy Speaker Eddie Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement, branded Lacson’s allegations as a “big lie.”
Drilon said he and Lacson would go over the House-approved 2020 GAB because they found it highly irregular for the House to create a “small committee” to introduce individual amendments to the bill after it was already approved on third and final reading.
It turned out that the practice of forming a small committee to tackle amendments to the GAB was an established procedure dating back to the 8th Congress. It was done to ensure that the budget bill gets passed on time and remains aligned with Malacañang’s proposed expenditure program.
Three Deputy Speakers also cried foul over the attacks by Lacson and Drilon against the House and described the two senators as “obstructionists” out to derail the reform programs of President Duterte.
They emphasized that the House-approved budget is consistent with the priorities of the President.
Cayetano has assured critics of the House that the 2020 GAB remains free of “pork” and illegal insertions, and does not contain “parked” funds. “If there is pork in the budget, tell us and we will remove it,” he said.
In fact, the amendments introduced by the House in the 2020 budget propose a realignment of P9.52 billion in funds where the biggest beneficiary would be the country’s beleaguered rice farmers. Of this amount, P3.5 billion will go to the Department of Agriculture to enable it to buy more palay from farmers amid declining farmgate prices.
The other beneficiaries include the Department of Education, which will get P800 million to operate more schools from Kinder to Grade 12 and establish model day care centers; Department of Health, P200 million to strengthen the National Center for Mental Health and set up a quick-response fund; UP-Philippine General Hospital, P500 million;
Department of Environment and Natural Resources, P500 million for its National Resource Conservation and Development-Protected Areas and Development Management Program; Metro Manila Development Authority, P500 million to reinforce its traffic enforcement capabilities; and Philippine Sports Commission, P500 million, for the training of athletes for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Cayetano has given assurances that the House-approved budget bill is pork-free. In fact, he said, anyone can scrutinize it with a fine-tooth comb and would find nothing irregular or anomalous in it.