Still the hardest worker around

"Mrs. Arroyo has presided over the passage of what she proudly claims is a hundred percent of President Duterte's priority legislative agenda."

As she adjourned the third session of the 17th Congress last Friday for a three-month recess, the diminutive Speaker of the House took the opportunity to congratulate herself and her colleagues for an extremely productive session.

Since she took over the Speakership last July in a controversial transfer of power that was marred by unseemly petulance from the outgoing incumbent, Mrs. Arroyo has presided over the passage of what she proudly claims is a hundred percent of President Duterte’s priority legislative agenda.

By my count, as of Jan. 31 a total of 17 bills important to Duterte had been enacted into law, enrolled for Presidential action, adopted by the House, or approved on third reading, with another three bills still in committee or the calendar of unfinished business. Among the key measures:

Enactment and eventual ratification by plebiscite of the Bangsamoro Organic Law. The “Trabaho bill,” the second tranche of comprehensive tax reform. Bills to support the coconut and fishing industries. Expansion of PhilHealth coverage under the administration’s commitment to universal health care.

Other issues tackled by the House included tax amnesty and a variety of excise taxes; reforms in real property valuation and capital gains taxation; labor-only contractualization or “endo”; and, to cap it all, the passage at last of the national budget for 2019, despite unusual acrimony this year between both chambers of Congress and a still-festering personal dispute between the current and a former Budget secretary.

Perhaps the only measure I would take issue with was the House version of a new constitution. By disregarding proposed curbs on dynasties and balimbings, and by trying to go even farther and do away with term limits, the congressmen came in for their rightful share of public scorn.

The only silver lining I see in that document is its willingness to immediately liberalize restrictions on foreign investment. Some senators have already indicated that they’d be willing to pass those economic reforms already while awaiting a consensus on more problematic parts of a new charter, including federalism. We’ll have to await the results of the May elections to see if there’ll be enough support in Congress to do this.

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Never one to sit still, Mrs. Arroyo has already served notice that she expects the congressmen to continue working through the recess. Lined up in her crosshairs are congressmen who’re not running in May, who’re running unopposed, or who chair key oversight committees. She wants to make sure that key bills approved by the House on third reading will be ready for Senate concurrence when sessions resume in May.

Arroyo’s legendary work ethic has already made an impression on congressional staffers, who say they’ve never worked this hard before. Unfortunately, someone who’s still unimpressed—and is likely to remain so till kingdom come—is the presumptive Senate gadfly Ping Lacson.

Lacson is the senator who likes to boast that he’s never taken a peso of pork barrel—simply because, we’re now finding out, he calls his pork “institutional insertions.” As to where the difference between the two may lie, we’ll simply have to take his word for it until he gives us a clue.

This time around, Lacson accused Arroyo of securing no less than P606 million to fund 76 farm-to- market roads in 2019 for her second district of Pampanga. That is truly a humongous number, representing more than one thousand percent increase over the P47 million worth of projects in that district in 2018.

Former Budget Secretary and House majority leader Nonoy Andaya, the current House appropriations committee chairman, has flat out denied that that number even exists. As with the difference between pork and his “institutional insertions,” we’d be interested in hearing from Lacson about the provenance of his accusations.

For years, Lacson has nursed a grievance against Arroyo, under whose term as president he was forced to flee abroad from justice. Perhaps the fugitive’s heart is harder than most. We can only hope that he won’t let his personal issues stand in the way of obstructing the House’s hard-won bills when they finally cross his desk in the Senate.

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One head of state who’s finding out how hard his job really is, is President Duterte himself. Speaking in Legaspi last week, he admitted: “I really thought I could end the illegal drug trade in six months…How can I solve it if my enemies are the Bureau of Customs, police generals? They’re all in NAIA. My enemy is my own government!”

I’m sure that Duterte’s usual brutal frankness—even at his own expense—again cheered his admirers. And I was bemused at the way his online yellow critics made fun of these latest comments of his—conveniently neglecting to mention, of course, how the drug trade and smuggling and other index crimes ballooned under the late and unlamented administration of their fearless leaders PNot at the Palace and Mar Roxas at DILG.

But I won’t take a leaf from the playbook of Boy Sisi and simply blame previous presidents. What I can say is that the dismantling of an intractable social menace like the drug trade throughout the country will take much more than perhaps the mayor of a provincial city like Davao might have imagined when he first took office at the Palace.

It’s a problem that continues to bedevil even the most advanced societies and economies of the West. It’ll be even more difficult for the likes of our country. And to his credit, this mayor—regardless of the odds, and perhaps because he hadn’t fully appreciated what the odds really are—agreed to take on the challenge and—for all his complaining—is still taking it on.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

Topics: Speaker of the House , Rodrigo Duterte , Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo , Bangsamoro Organic Law , Mar Roxas
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