House continues legislative churn amid pandemic

MANILA – The House of Representatives has ensured that the legislative mill is always churning amid a whirlwind of events ranging from the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, the tug-of-war for the speakership, and multiple disasters that all occurred in one year.

The lower chamber was able to process an average of 35 measures per day.

From July 22, 2019 to Dec. 16, 2020, the House processed a total of 2,598 measures during 74 session days, 40 of which were enacted into law, 16 transmitted to the President, and 453 approved on third and final reading.

Bayanihan laws, other Covid-19 mitigation measures

President Rodrigo Duterte has asked Congress for special powers to deal with the Covid-19 crisis in March, ranging from faster procurement of essential goods, provision of financial assistance to low-income households and other vulnerable sectors, regulation of transportation operations, to the realignment of public funds, among many others.

Congress heeded the call of the executive branch to convene a special session for the enactment of a law that was crucial to speed up government action and provide the bureaucracy with the needed flexibility, particularly in public budgeting.

It was the first time in the chamber’s history to hold a “virtual” session on March 23 to strictly observe social distancing measures amid the imposition of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine.

The measure was certified as urgent, thus allowing second and third reading approval within the same day.

The “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” or Republic Act 11469 was inked by Duterte on March 24 but was only published in newspapers on March 25.

With Bayanihan 1 lapsing on June 25, the President called on Congress to pass the proposed “Bayanihan to Recover as One” law or the Bayanihan 2 to help speed up the country’s recovery from the pandemic.

The second installment of the Bayanihan Act will supplement funds amounting to PHP165.5 billion for recovery and response against the impact of the pandemic.

The largest chunk of the budget was allotted to loans for sectors hit by the pandemic, such as micro, small, and medium-scale enterprises, transport, tourism, and agriculture.

It also provided for the government’s Covid-19 health-related response.

The House also passed other bills to boost the government’s response to the health crisis, including the Accelerated Recovery and Intervention Stimulus for the Economy (ARISE), Covid-19-related anti-discrimination bill, the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST) bill, and the bill on a “better normal” for the workplace and public spaces.

ABS-CBN franchise renewal controversy

Aside from the pandemic, the House was also preoccupied with the controversial franchise renewal case of broadcast giant ABS-CBN.

Congress was unable to renew the network’s congressional franchise before its expiration date on May 4.

ABS-CBN, upon the directive of the National Telecommunications Commission’s (NTC) shutdown order, ceased its broadcast operations on May 5.

The franchise bills have been set aside by the 18th Congress as the country faced the Taal volcano eruption and Covid-19.

ABS-CBN’s fate was sealed on July 10 when the House Committee on Legislative Franchises approved – by a 70-11 vote, with one abstention – the resolution denying the franchise application of the network to construct, install, establish, operate, and maintain radio and broadcasting stations in the Philippines. Two other lawmakers inhibited from voting.

The previous House hearings have exhaustively discussed the network’s franchise issues, including the citizenship of ABS-CBN chair emeritus Gabby Lopez; the possible violation of the constitutional limits on foreign ownership; reported labor and tax violations; and other violations of the terms of its legislative franchise.

The NTC on June 30 also issued two cease and desist orders, directing ABS-CBN to halt the operation of its digital television transmission using Amcara Broadcasting Corp.’s Channel 43 and the direct-to-home satellite transmission of its cable firm, Sky Cable Corp.

Tug-of-war: Cayetano vs. Velasco

The tug-of-war for speakership between Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco hounded the legislative affairs of the chamber, particularly the passage of the proposed 2021 national budget.

Under the term-sharing deal brokered by Duterte, Cayetano would serve as House Speaker for the first 15 months, or until October 2020, while Velasco would take over and assume the highest position at the House of Representatives for the remaining 21 months or until the 18th Congress ends in 2022.

Cayetano, however, expressed his desire to stay on as the House’s top leader longer than expected, contrary to the gentleman’s agreement.

Duterte had to intercede and set up a meeting with the speakership rivals at Malacañang, wherein it was agreed upon that the turnover would be conducted on October 14.

Following the meeting, Cayetano offered to step down in a privilege speech before fellow lawmakers, but the plenary rejected his offer of resignation with a 184-1-9 vote.

Velasco continued to push Cayetano to honor the agreement and resign by October 14.

Just a few days before the agreed-upon speakership turnover, lawmakers from the lower chamber held an unprecedented remote plenary session to elect Velasco as the new Speaker.

A total of 186 lawmakers voted to install Velasco as the House’s top leader in a remote plenary session at the Celebrity Sports Plaza in Quezon City on October 12.

It was made official with the ratification of Velasco’s election a day after, with the same number of lawmakers who voted to elect him as Speaker.

As the 27th House Speaker, Velasco committed to exert all efforts toward attaining his goal of a “stronger, inclusive and united House.”

“We will work together in Congress to pass laws that are timely and responsive to the needs of our countrymen and to make the lower chamber truly the House representing the people,” he said.

Velasco said under his helm, the chamber was able to pass “timely and relevant laws to alleviate the plight of our people during these trying times.”

“Rest assured we will continue to do so in the coming new year,” he added.

According to House records, the chamber processed 688 measures or an average of 115 per session from October 2 to December 16 alone.

Velasco expressed hope that an affordable, safe, and effective vaccine against Covid-19 would arrive in the Philippines at the soonest time possible, especially with the passage of the 2021 national budget.

“Having a safe and effective vaccine available to Filipinos is currently the best way for us to beat the virus,” he said. (PNA)

Source: Philippines News agency

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