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Final ‘act’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 19, 2021 - 12:00am

As earlier announced, the Senators have agreed to hold sessions four days starting this week. Both chambers of the 18th Congress just resumed sessions last Monday. Our legislators enjoyed more than a month-long session break that started before the Holy Week.

It would seem the Senate added an extra session day. As far as I can remember while still pounding the Senate coverage, Senators conduct their sessions from Mondays to Wednesdays and devote every Thursdays to pass upon bills of local application forwarded from the House of Representatives.

So there is really no extra day of work added by the Senators.

Local bills pertain to legislative measures from declaring special or commemorative holidays at specific congressional districts, reclassification of colleges to universities to renaming schools, cities down to streets and barangays, dividing and creating new legislative districts, and other parochial concerns. With over 300 House members, including the 50 or so party list representatives, the Senate must really dedicate one session day to tackle all these local bills.

So the Senators have to devote one session day to screen and vet all local bills. Otherwise, the so-called 24 “independent republics” would just become another rubber-stamp for the bigger house of Congress.

As far as the members of the House of Representatives are concerned, they follow their own work schedule. The Lower House holds sessions from Mondays to Wednesdays only and they spend the rest of the week to go back to their respective congressional districts, supposedly. The House order of business normally starts around 3 o’clock in the afternoon and could stretch all the way to the late hours of the night.

But when they run after the legislative clock, especially during budget deliberations, the Lower House hold marathon sessions that could end up in the wee hours of the next day already. Such irregular business hours have become part of their tradition and House rules.

With just three weeks remaining of sessions, the Senators are on a catch-up mode. This is because many of the administration priority bills are all pending at the Senate. The bulk of these bills are under the common legislative agenda that the Senate previously adopted with the Lower House and Malacañang. The Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) meets today purportedly to harmonize anew the list of priority bills by both branches of government.

Created by law, the LEDAC is composed of the President and select Cabinet officials and the leaders of both chambers of Congress led by the Senate President and the House Speaker and the respective chairpersons of key Senate and House committees. As of this writing, it remains uncertain if President Rodrigo Duterte would preside over the LEDAC or he will just let Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to represent him anew. As the so-called “little president,” Medialdea has been the one sitting in the LEDAC meetings in behalf of the Chief Executive.

Since day one of his office, President Duterte conducts his own meetings with the leaders of Congress whom ever he chooses to talk with outside the ambit of the LEDAC. Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III attests to President Duterte’s style of interaction with legislators that is not limited to Malacañang allies in Congress.

Of course, the former Davao City Mayor has the eyes and ears at the Senate, through neophyte Senator Christopher “Bong” Go who serves him concurrently as Special Assistant to the President. And perhaps at the Lower House, the President’s son, Davao Rep. Paolo Duterte would certainly keep his ears close to the ground on matters that could affect the political fortunes of the ruling pro-administration majority.

Out of the 16 priority bills set by the previous LEDAC meetings, seven to eight are reportedly in the final stages of passage into law. One of which, the bill on the proposed Bureau of Fire Protection Modernization Act, has reached the bicameral conference committee. Called bicam for short, this is a committee of select number of Senators and House members tasked to work out the final version of the measure out of the various Senate and House bills they have consolidated into one.

Regarded as the “third congress,” this is the stage of the legislative mill where the proverbial horse-trading takes place before the proposed law is finalized, especially whenever the annual budget bill is tackled.

According to Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, his fellow Senators agreed in a caucus to frontload the approval into law of urgent economic and fiscal measures. Hopefully, these legislative measures could help pull the country out of recession caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic that hobbled our economy since March last year.

To mitigate the impact of COVID-19 pandemic, they quickly approved into law Bayanihan 1, or the Heal As One Act of 2020, and subsequently, Bayanihan 2, or the We Recover As One Act 2021. Certain Senators and House leaders are now pushing enactment of Bayanihan-3.

For now, the Senators identified the following as their priority bills: the proposed amendments to the Public Services Act; the proposed Retail Trade Liberalization Act; the Government Financial Institutions Unified Initiatives to Distressed Enterprises for Economic Recovery (GUIDE) bill; and, the proposed extension of the amnesty for the payment of estate tax.

The same economic bills have already been approved by the Lower House since last year but have un-explicably languished at the Senate. Other than these economic bills on various stages at the Senate legislative mills, the Senators added the Malacañang-backed postponement of the elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to May, 2025.

The second regular sessions of the 18th Congress will wrap up and adjourn sine die on June 4. They will go back to lawmaking duties for the third and final regular sessions on July 26. This will be the final “act” of President Duterte to deliver his ultimate state of the nation address.

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