In last SONA, Duterte asks Congress to pass 12 laws

Bella Perez-Rubio, Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com
In last SONA, Duterte asks Congress to pass 12 laws
President Rodrigo Duterte is joined by Senate President Tito Sotto and House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco at Congress during his last State of the Nation Address on July 26, 2021.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — At his sixth and final State of the Nation Address on Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte called on Congress to pass 12 laws in the last year of his term.

Leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate can craft their own legislative agenda but because both chambers are filled with Duterte's allies, they — especially the lower chamber — have usually passed laws according to the president's instructions.

Duterte’s legislative wishlist during his valedictory SONA is shorter than the one from his penultimate address, where he asked Congress to pass 21 laws.

Of these, only four have been enacted: the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act, the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer Act, and the coconut levy trust fund law.

With fewer things on his legislative agenda, will Duterte get what he wants or will his calls fall on deaf ears, especially since lawmakers typically get busy campaigning for their respective electoral bids during this leg of Congress?

Uniformed personnel pension reform

"I am asking Congress to pass a unified system of separation, retirement and pension of military and uniformed personnel to maintain government fiscal flexibility and provide adequate benefits and remuneration to our men and women in uniform," Duterte said.

Bills seeking to do this are pending at the committee level in both chambers of Congress.

As urged by Duterte, the pending bills only seek to apply the new system to new entrants of the military and uniformed services.

Free legal assistance to AFP, PNP personnel

The president also wants Congress to pass a law granting free legal assistance to military and police personnel "to help them from charges arising from incidents related to the performance of official duty."

He sought this a little over a year after signing the widely assailed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 into law which former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio warned potentially puts the Philippines "permanently under a situation worse than martial law."

Government figures also show that as of April 30, 2021, some 6,117 people have died in the 200,632 anti-illegal drug operations conducted by law enforcement. Rights groups estimate that the number of fatalities could be as high as 30,000.

Despite this, there have been virtually no convictions of cops over "drug war" abuses, save for the case of Kian Delos Santos.

National Union of People's Lawyer Edre Olalia noted that while police and military officers have the right to counsel along with the rest of Filipinos, there would be no need to pass a law granting them free legal aid if they carried out their duties properly.

“In fact, with all these rights violations and abuses, it is the victims of security forces that most need free, competent and independent counsel," he said.

Proposed measures looking to grant free legal assistance to the police and military have been stuck at the committee level in both the Senate and the House of Representatives since 2019.

Amendments to economic laws

Duterte also urged Congress to pass amendments to the Foreign Investment Act, the Public Service Act and the Retail Trade and Liberalization Act, which will give more leeway to foreign investments.

Amendments to the Retail Trade and Liberalization Act have reached the farthest among these three proposals, with it being pending before Congress’ bicameral conference committee which would thresh out differences between the House and the Senate versions of the bill.

Meanwhile, amendments to the Foreign Investment Act and the Public Service Act have been passed by the House and are pending second reading in the Senate.

“Your applause went well ahead of its realization,” Duterte told a clapping Congress. “You have to work on this, guys.”

New departments

Duterte renewed his call for Congress to pass laws that would consolidate all government offices related to the concerns of Filipinos abroad and overseas Filipino workers, which was among his campaign promises.

The measure, certified by Duterte as urgent, was approved last year by the House and just reached the Senate plenary in May.

Much like in his 2020 SONA, Duterte also urged Congress to create a Department of Disaster Resilience.

Similarly, this was passed by the House last year but is still pending at the committee level in the Senate.

Transition to e-governance

The chief executive further called on Congress to pass a law institutionalizing e-governance in the Philippines to better cope with the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

This involves establishing an integrated and interoperable information system for the whole of government, an internal records management system, information database and digital portals for government services.

E-governance would also do away with paper-based and outdated models of bureaucratic work within government agencies and units to improve efficiency.

The bills are pending at the committee level in both chambers of Congress.

Pandemic preparedness

Duterte also pushed Congress to pass laws that would create two new government agencies that would help equip the country to better respond to future pandemics.

He wants Congress to establish the Philippines’ own Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a virology and vaccine institute.

“However poor we are, I think the Filipinos, given the proper support, the things, the equipment they have to use … I am sure that the Filipino brain can also process or make vaccines in the future,” Duterte said.

These measures are up for third and final reading at the House and are pending at the committee level in the Senate.

Bureau of Fire Protection modernization

Duterte also urged the passage of a law strengthening and modernizing the Bureau of Fire Protection.

The bicameral version of the bill seeks to "establish and implement the BFP Modernization Program geared towards the capability enhancement of its personnel and acquisition of state-of-the-art fire prevention, fire suppression, fire investigation, emergency medical and rescue services apparatus."

Senators, however, rejected a motion to ratify the measure after Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon uncovered a provision allowing over 2,000 firefighters to carry firearms.

Evacuation centers

The chief executive again called on Congress to pass laws establishing evacuation centers in every province, city and municipality.

Much like other measures he wants passed, it has only hurdled the House and remains pending at the committee level in the Senate.

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