Poor Senator Sonny Angara. The chairman of the Senate ways and means committee merited special mention during President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address last Monday, after the Chief Executive pointed out that the senator from Baler did not clap when Duterte asked Congress to pass his comprehensive tax reform package.
“Bantay ka sa eleksyon [Watch yourself in the next elections],” Duterte told Angara. The remark was obviously a reference to the fact that Angara is up for reelection in the 2019 midterm elections and could pay a heavy price for not supporting Malacañang’s tax proposal.
Senator Panfilo Lacson publicly declared yesterday what most pundits were already speculating about since Duterte gave his speech. “Baka ma-Recto siya [Angara might suffer the fate of Senator Ralph Recto],” Lacson said.
And Lacson’s barb, in turn, referenced the support of Recto for the expanded value added tax law during the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Recto is widely believed to have lost the next election he ran in because of his backing of the E-VAT law in the Senate, upon Arroyo’s behest.
Of course, the story didn’t end there. The E-VAT is correctly credited as one of the reasons for the stable, relatively shock-proof economy that Arroyo created and whose benefits are still being felt by the Duterte administration.
And Recto is back in the Senate, apparently none the worse for wear after his political career was declared prematurely dead after the E-VAT kerfuffle. Strange, right?
But I said “poor” Angara in the beginning because, in the first place, even if he is the ways and means committee’s chairman, he only gets one vote, just like each of the 24 senators. Besides, Duterte’s warning to Angara seems to be premised on the senator’s opposing Malacañang’s tax program, unlike the action of Recto, who was punished at the polls because he backed the Palace on a controversial tax measure.
I interviewed Angara yesterday and he seemed to take Duterte’s warning in stride. He described the President as “partly joking, partly serious,” when he made the statement.
All the same, Angara would not yield even if the personal stakes for him are admittedly high. Reminded that Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez had urged Congress to not tinker too much with the tax proposal because the administration’s economic managers had already worked so hard on it, Angara said that doesn’t mean that the Senate, which was elected by the people to protect their interest, had to study it again, because that was its job.
This is a young man who is obviously not easily intimidated, even by the fearsome political clout of Duterte. In his quiet, calm manner, Angara may have shown everyone the proper way to stand up to the powerful and wildly popular president.
* * *
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Duterte and his economic managers don’t want to see any more watering down of its tax proposal in the Senate. After all, the Lower House had already succeeded in trimming some of the expected revenue that the administration needs to pay for its centerpiece P8-trillion “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.
The House succeeded in keeping some of the exemptions that Dominguez had wanted removed, especially the potentially huge income from taxing cooperatives. The bigger chamber had also forced Dominguez and Co. to scale down the one-time P6 per liter tax on diesel fuel to a staggered, 1-2-3 formula over three years.
And Duterte, to his credit, has not really pushed Congress hard on the tax reform package, which seeks to simultaneously provide tax relief to long-suffering low- and middle-income workers by adjusting 20-year tax income brackets while finding new ways to raise revenue, including taxing sugared beverages. But now, Duterte seems to be feeling the pressure of finding funding for his nationwide infrastructure program, which has not really gotten off the ground one year after he has been in office.
My own belief is that Duterte will get support from the public for his tax program, not only because of the power of his personal popularity but also because most people want to see his infrastructure program take off. Unfortunately, it is Congress—specifically the Senate this time—that will decide the tax package’s fate.
The Senate, much like Angara himself, will claim that it is merely doing its job of protecting the people from the taxman. But if Duterte and his men are able to convince the citizenry that Congress has become the stumbling block to the progress that the Palace seeks, then our lawmakers may not be able to withstand the pressure.
Consider, then, Duterte’s calling out of Angara as a message to all of the Senate, where Duterte also controls the majority. The people, ultimately, will not allow Congress to stand in the way of Duterte’s plans.
And when push comes to shove, I think the people will still back Duterte. The Senate may succeed in chipping away at some of the more controversial features of the tax reform package, but only up to a point.
In the end, Duterte will still get his way because the people support him. Just ask Ralph Recto, who knows a thing or two about the importance of popular support.