Priority legislation in the 18th Congress

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Partisan politics can make or break a legislative agenda. In cases where there is a supermajority coalition, the legislative process may become faster and less tedious in the plenary deliberations. But with politics largely defining legislative priorities, the resulting dynamics will tend to favor the passage of “populist” laws as these are deemed more politically beneficial to the legislators, even if some of these laws may not be geared to promote efficiency, productivity and competitiveness.

While the priorities of both the Senate and the House of Representatives are anchored on the President’s legislative agenda, the full Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) has yet to convene after the opening of the 18th Congress. The lack of frequent Ledac meetings had affected the performance of the previous Congress. To be more responsive, Congress needs to open itself to more multilateral consultations and expert opinions, especially in crafting new measures that require huge annual expenditures.

Just this week, the Senate started its plenary deliberations on the proposed 2020 national budget. There is pressure on both chambers of Congress to ensure the timely passage of the budget by December. Last year’s budget deadlock and prolonged debates relating to pork barrel issues delayed the passage of the 2019 budget by four months. Economists have warned lawmakers that such delays dampen the country’s GDP growth, since government spending is a main driver of growth.

The Senate version of the 2020 budget provided hefty increases in health, education and social services. These include, among others, P9.4 billion to assist poor patients in both public and private hospitals; P7 billion to prevent the mass layoff of nurses, doctors and midwives in underdeveloped areas; P3 billion for supplemental feeding for preschool and kinder students; and P8.5 billion for the Student Financial Assistance Program.

To complement the increase in the proposed 2020 budget for health programs, the Senate has also passed on third and final reading the bill institutionalizing the Malasakit Centers in Department of Health hospitals. The measure aims to consolidate the assistance being provided by the health and social welfare departments, as well as by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. The bill has hurdled second reading in the House and is expected to pass after final reading next week.

Meanwhile, the House is completing the different technical working group reports for the substitute bills creating the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers, Department of Water and Department of Disaster Resilience. However, although it is important to create specialized departments to address specific concerns and problems, the creation of new departments should be judiciously studied in terms of multiyear budget requirements. It should also be considered that amending the Salary Standardization Law to put into effect another round of salary increases for government personnel will gravely affect the national budget.

Moreover, the creation of new departments for disaster resilience, overseas Filipinos and water management is not actually a guarantee toward better and more transparent use of resources. The executive office should ensure that the creation of these new departments will, first of all, lead to a change in mindsets among government personnel, especially in terms of delivering more comprehensive services. The new departments should strengthen the level of accountability and responsiveness of these offices to their constituents.

Beyond the creation of new departments, it is also essential for the 18th Congress to prioritize measures that will modernize and reengineer the country’s agriculture sector. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Philippines became the top global rice importer this year—a situation that highlights the critical problems of productivity and self-sufficiency in Philippine agriculture. Existing laws and current budget allocations need to be reevaluated to determine the policy interventions urgently required to prevent the further deterioration of the country’s farming sector.




This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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