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Congress may run out of time to approve economic bills

Congress will prioritize economic measures when session resumes today. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

THE 18TH CONGRESS may soon run out of time to pass key economic legislation, as lawmakers are expected to focus on their reelection campaigns beginning in the second half of the year.

Political science professor Maria Ela L. Atienza of the University of the Philippines said lawmakers should immediately prioritize bills that will aid the economy’s post-pandemic recovery.

“Given the limited time available to them now because they will soon be busy with a lot of election-related activities by the third and fourth quarter of this year, they should prioritize bills related to economic recovery and assisting Filipino enterprises and workers adversely affected by the pandemic,” she said in an e-mail on Sunday.

The economy is expected to recover this year after it contracted by 10% in the first nine months of 2020 amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Economic managers expect gross domestic product to grow by 6.5% to 7.5% this year.

Ms. Atienza said it would be difficult to pass any tax-related measures during Congress’ third regular session that will open in July, as many will be preparing for their election campaign. The national election is scheduled on May 9, 2022.

“It is indeed difficult to convince people that taxes are needed for the government to continue delivering services when a large portion of the population is already facing a lot of economic difficulties and there are questions about the government’s efficiency in delivering basic services,” she said.

“Many legislators are also more conscious now about their chances in the next elections.”

Also, Ms. Atienza noted the move to amend economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution, which had long been an agenda of past administrations, will be difficult amid the pressure on the government to address pandemic-related issues.

“The legislators in both Houses, with the majority still claiming to support the President, will definitely try to balance these competing demands as well as their chances for reelection or election to other offices in 2022,” she said.

However, Congress leaders are confident that the Duterte administration’s priority economic measures will be approved before the second session ends on June 5. These include the measures that will immediately cut corporate income tax to 25% from 30%, and strengthen the existing law to prevent money laundering.

“I was informed that the Bicameral Conference (Committees) on the CREATE (Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises) bill and AMLA (Anti-Money Laundering Act) amendments may meet anytime (this) week to discuss the differences between the Senate and the House versions,” House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez said in a phone message on Thursday.

Mr. Romualdez said these measures would help the economy recover from the pandemic.

“Once enacted into law, the CREATE bill will definitely provide businesses, particularly MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises) with one of the largest economic stimulus measures in the country’s history to help them recover from the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he also said.

The proposed AMLA changes, meanwhile, are being rushed to allow the Philippines to meet the Feb. 1 deadline of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and avoid being gray-listed.

Aside from these two measures, the Senate will also prioritize the proposed changes to the Retail Trade Liberalization Act (RTLA), under RA 8762, and Public Service Act, under Commonwealth Act No. 146.

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III had said in a media forum on Jan. 13 that the bills are prioritized “in no particular order. Kung ano ’yung kayang i-fast-break, gawin na agad.”

Senate Bill No. 1840 that will reduce paid-up capital requirement for foreign retailers to $300,000 from $2.5-7.5 million had been endorsed for plenary action. Meanwhile, bills that seek to clarify industries identified as public services are still pending at the committee level.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said in a statement on Sunday that the chamber will focus on passing bills on CREATE, the coconut farmers trust fund, and the confirmation of imperfect land titles, which are being tackled by the Bicameral Conference Committees.

Mr. Zubiri said the Senate will start plenary debates on the RTLA and PSA amendments, and other bills such as the Internet Transactions Act and the creation of a new department for Filipino migrants.

The House had also passed and transmitted to the Senate its versions of the said bills under HB Nos. 59 and 78. — Charmaine A. Tadalan

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