Last-minute power struggles

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Like President Rodrigo Duterte, members of both chambers of the 18th Congress have less than six months remaining in their terms of office. In the case of the Senators and Congressmen, their third and last regular sessions will adjourn sine die on June 3 this year.

A week before both chambers of the 18th Congress resume their third and last regular sessions, the Department of Finance (DOF) headed by Secretary Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez III appealed to both leaders and members of the legislature. As they resume sessions starting today, Dominguez pleaded in particular to the Senate to expedite action on two House-approved bills under President Duterte’s Comprehensive Tax Reform Program (CTRP). The two bills are, namely, the proposed Real Property Valuation Reform Act, and, the proposed Passive Income and Financial Intermediary Taxation Act (PIFITA), or Package 3 and 4 of the CTRP.

The bill on Package 3 seeks to establish a single valuation base for taxation through the adoption of updated schedules of market values (SMVs) by all local government units, among other reforms under this proposed measure. The PIFITA bill, on the other hand, will reduce the number of differing tax rates from 80 to 36 and harmonize the tax rates on interest, dividends and capital gains, and the business taxes imposed on financial intermediaries. Also, it will remove the documentary stamp tax imposed on non-monetary transactions.

For the past few days, Malacañang released the latest batches of Congress-approved bills that President Duterte signed into law. They included a slew of Palace-endorsed economic liberalization bills that would be timely implemented as the country recovers from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These included the newly signed law that amended the Public Service Act; the Foreign Investments Act; and, the Retail Trade Liberalization Act.

One of the other important tasks of the outgoing Congress before they wind down their sessions is to preside over the official proclamation of the winning presidential and vice presidential (VP) candidates of the May 9, 2022 elections. Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III and Speaker Lord Allan Velasco are mandated to oversee this task of Congress.

Aside from being one of the aspirants in the forthcoming VP race, the incumbent Senate president along with second-termer Senators like his presidential runningmate Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and ten other fellow Senators are “graduating” on their second and last term in office. At the Lower House, Velasco is running unopposed in his bid for third and last term in his home congressional district in Marinduque. A stalwart of Duterte’s ruling administration party Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Laban ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), Velasco is known as a very close ally of the President and the latter’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte.

This Velasco proved during his Speakership feud with the tacit support of the Duterte’s. Velasco had to call in the chips when his immediate predecessor ousted Speaker and Taguig/Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano refused to honor their “gentlemen’s agreement” on term-sharing.

The Speakership tussle was not the first power struggle for Velasco.

He was previously embroiled in an electoral protest three years after entering politics when he first joined Congress in 2010. Velasco tried to get reelected in 2013 but lost to Regina Ongsiako Reyes, a member of the influential Reyes’ political clan in Marinduque. He protested Reyes’ victory before the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for being a naturalized American citizen. The Comelec subsequently canceled Reyes’ certificate of candidacy on the same basis. After more than two years of battling it out at the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal and the Supreme Court, Velasco took his oath of office as Marinduque Representative in February 2016. This was less than months remainder of three-year term. He run again and won the May 2016 elections.

Given his own experience, Speaker Velasco should be the first one to push for speedy resolution of such political intramurals at his own House. One of Velasco’s 32 House deputy speakers, Rep. Lito Atienza of Buhay Party List nipped in the bud the internal political strife in his group. This was after Atienza decided in October last year to run as VP runningmate of Sen. Manny Pacquiao as the Promdi Party’s presidential standardbearer. Atienza’s fellow Buhay Party List Reps. Rene and Mariano Michael Velarde Jr. from the El Shaddai Movement resigned from their party list group.

Another intra-party row rocking the Lower House has been raging among Ang Probinsyano Party List Representatives. Incumbent second nominee Ronnie Ong put up his own Ako’y Pilipino party list on Nov. 19 last year. Naturally, Ang Probinsyano leaders asked Ong to resign when his extra party list activity was discovered. Leaders of Ang Probinsyano notified the Comelec of their group’s action to replace Ong with their third nominee to assume vacancy. The Comelec granted this request and certified on Dec. 21 that Edward C. Delos Santos as the third nominee of Ang Probinsyano vice Ong.

Ong, however, refused to resign and insisted he remains the incumbent nominee of Ang Probinsyano. Under Section 15 of the Comelec guidelines, a nominee needs to be at least six months resigned from his present Partylist before he or she can join another Partylist. But this is something that the Comelec needs to resolve on whether Ong could still be an eligible candidate for his new Partylist.

Instead of kicking Ong out of the party, the leaders of Ang Probinsyano sought for the guidance of the House Speaker. The ball now is in the court of Speaker Velasco. The House leadership needs to decide whether or not Ong is still a member or not of Ang Probinsyano Partylist. The House attendance shows that until before the recess of Congress last December, Ong was still part of the roll call.

As the Speaker, Velasco has to do last-minute power struggles at the House to clear up the air, so to speak. Or else, these issues blow up to his face.


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