Not the right path

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

With the re-imposition of the hard lockdown all over the national capital region (NCR) starting today, both chambers of the 18th Congress have decided to also suspend their respective plenary sessions. We do understand our legislators are not taking unnecessary risks on the latest threats of the more deadly and highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) contagion.

With less than 11 months remaining of the term of President Rodrigo Duterte, the 18th Congress have much less time though left of their calendar. For the third and last regular sessions, both chambers will still even have break periods or recess in between session days. The respective leaders of both chambers have yet to sit down together and agree on the adoption of their legislative calendar for the outgoing 18th Congress. Two weeks after their joint opening sessions – marked by the valedictory state of the nation address (SONA) of President Duterte – the Senators and Congressmen went into unscheduled recess due to the ECQ.

When the first-ever ECQ was imposed in March last year, both the Senate and the Lower House have adopted the so-called “hybrid” sessions that allow for virtual attendance or participate in sessions via online/internet. A good number of our lawmakers who are senior citizens under ECQ restrictions like Senate President Vicente Sotto III and several other senators and congressmen continue to attend the sessions physically while others attend virtually.

This is not to mention the limited timeframe for many of our lawmakers within which to complete their common legislative agenda once the political season related to the upcoming May 9, 2022 elections begins. The filing of certificates of candidacy is from Oct. 1-8.

Only then should the political season in our country would really heat up, newly appointed presidential adviser on political affairs Jacinto Paras told us during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday. But Paras remains undaunted by these important time lines. Paras believes there is still enough time for the President’s priority administration bills to get through the 18th Congress. In fact, Paras noted, a number of the 11 priority bills enumerated in the President’s SONA are already in advanced stages of the legislative mills.

Paras exhorted Congress to support the implementation of more intensified anti-COVID measures through needed funds that were included in the proposed 2022 budget bill. He announced the 2022 budget bill would be soon submitted even while Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Wendel Avisado is currently on medical leave.

Paras is confident, though, Malacañang would meet the mandated deadline to submit to Congress the proposed General Appropriations Act (GAA) of 2022. The deadline actually falls on Aug. 25, or a month after the President’s SONA.

Himself a congressman for three terms, Paras counts upon the Senators and Congressmen to cross partylines when it comes to priority legislative measures. As elected public servants, he stressed, responsible lawmakers know they must transcend beyond politics and partisan considerations. Paras cited in particular the national importance of several socio-economic bills that are still pending final congressional approval.

In fact, Paras noted, a good number of these Malacañang-certified urgent bills have great chances of being approved soon into law before the end of this year. This is because, he pointed out, many of them are already in the bicameral conference committee (bicam). This is the penultimate stage of the legislative mills where the consolidated version of the bill is finalized before it goes back to both chambers of Congress to ratify it separately at plenary sessions.

Offhand, Paras enumerated the following administration bills likely to get through Congress’ approval: the new Public Service Act; the Retail Trade Act; the amendments to the Foreign Investments Act; the Government Financial Institutions Unified Initiative for Distressed Enterprises for Economic Recovery (GUIDE) bill; the Virology Institute; and, the creation of a Department for Overseas Filipino Workers.

Since there are no plenary sessions during the two-week ECQ period, no bill comes out for Congress’ approval into law.

At this point, a strong lobby at Malacañang continues in a bid to stop the regional elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to be held at the same time in next year’s national and local polls. As previously declared by President Duterte, Paras admitted it is up to Congress whether or not to approve the bill seeking to postpone the BARMM elections and be synchronized instead with the May 2025 mid-term elections.

Whether Congress approves the postponement of regional elections or not, the bottom line is that the scarce public funds being poured into the BARMM must be spent for the benefit of the people. The lawmakers wanted to look first into a number of reported anomalous contracts that went into the pockets of unscrupulous BARMM officials. In this way, crooks would not be able to stay in office and get away bilking funds from the peace and development projects at the BARMM.

Under 2020 GAA, the BARMM was allocated an annual appropriation of P7 billion, an annual block grant of P63.6 billion, and a special development fund of P5 billion. The Commission on Audit (COA) early this year flagged BARMM for dilly-dallying on the P2.34-billion infrastructure projects which could have benefitted by now more than 6,650 families in Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – all affected by armed conflict in the region in the past years.

How can there be peace in Mindanao when corruption drags down full development at the BARMM?  Let me be clear on this. We all want for the BARMM to succeed, because its success means peace and progress for all of us Filipinos. But is extending the stay in office of these crooks the right path to pursue it?

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