Don’t have laws just for the sake of having them passed

Bills or laws must be passed not just for the sake of having them passed. But what ought to be is oftentimes violated. For any reason (e.g., vested interests, bargaining, plain carelessness), the substance of the bill or the law is ignored or even severely diluted. It gets passed, but the form overwhelms the essence.
Let’s provide the context to understand the concern over bills being ratified just for the sake of packaging Congress (and the Executive) to look good. With barely a year left before the 16th Congress ends, the legislators and their leadership are under tremendous pressure to pass important bills. The bills include the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL), freedom of information, fiscal incentives transparency and management, rationalization of fiscal incentives, competition policy, mineral taxation, income tax reform, public finance management, agrarian reform, land use, etc. The list is longer than what has been enumerated.The fact is, Congress cannot boast of any landmark piece of legislation, one that is transformative, after the passage of the laws on sin tax reforms and reproductive health. 2012 was a glorious year in terms of legislative achievements, but the momentum generated by the legislative reforms lost steam.It is sad that Congress has to deliberate and vote on such important bills at the last minute. It is not that Congress is procrastinating though procrastination is normal.

Two major reasons explain the slowdown in the passage of bills.

The first reason is that vested interests or the politicians themselves have deliberately blocked or slowed down the passage of some of the bills, aware that the proposed reforms will negatively affect them. In addition, politicians of different stripes, including the ideological ones, have created tactical alliances to oppose any major legislative initiative of the PNoy administration simply because they do not want the administration to succeed. The slow movement of the bill on freedom of information can be attributed to how the Makabayan bloc — it does not mind being labeled the party of the extreme opposition — has blocked the bill at every stage of the legislative process. It goes without saying that Makabayan has the tacit endorsement of some traditional politicians.

The second reason is that politically disruptive events resulted in the serious work of legislation falling by the wayside. These political disruptions or upheavals are worth mentioning: the discovery of the Janet Napoles pork barrel scam and the Mamasapano debacle. In the former, the reputation of Congress has been terribly tarnished, for the evidence has shown that many legislators were involved in corruption, if not plunder. In the latter, members of Congress — both the Senate and the House of Representatives — have exploited the tragedy to grandstand and whip up hysteria, thus resurfacing deep anti-Moro biases of many Filipinos. The casualty here is the BBL.

The BBL will still pass, but with a lot of compromises. PNoy wants it badly. The problem is whether the compromised BBL is going to be acceptable to those who will mainly benefit from it, the Moro Filipinos. (It must be said that the BBL is not only for the well-being of the Moros; its passage serves the national interest.) Said another way, compromises are inevitable, given that the original bill has provisions that can be legally challenged. However, one must be careful not to cross the red line.

In the Lower House, Representative Rufus Rodriguez, the chair of the ad hoc panel on the BBL, is tearing apart the original bill. Mr. Rodriguez has deleted eight major provisions. Adding insult to injury, he has proposed an annual salary of P180,000 (or a preposterous P15,000 a month) for the members of the Bangsamoro parliament.

It is not only the BBL that may suffer heavy dilution. Heavy dilution does not necessarily mean tearing apart the bill as what has been done to the Lower House version of the BBL. A clever legislator can just introduce a killer amendment that will entirely change the substance of the bill.

Take the case of the Lower House Bill on competition policy (House Bill No. 5286). It has a couple of provisions that allow practices normally seen as anti-competition. The first pertains to the “selling of goods or services below cost with the intent of driving competition out of the market or creating barriers to entry, except where the price is established in good faithto meet with the lower price of a competitor in the same market selling the same comparable good or service of like quality, or for justifiable commercial reasons as but not limited to, phasing out of a product or closure of business” (italics mine).

The second is an exception in the said bill to unfair methods of competition as well as unfair or deceptive trade or business practices (e.g., misleading information, false claims, misrepresentation) — that is, “when the information is given in good faith to relevant government authorities.” In short, dominant players can engage in anti-competitive behavior as long as this is dome in good faith!

The other example is a bill on transparency of investments and incentives or House Bill No. 5537 authored by Rufus Rodriguez (yes, Rodriguez again). Some sections are disturbing. For one thing, it contains a vague section that allows protection of the confidentiality of information as defined by the investment promotions agencies (IPAs). That only means having the status quo, in which the already opaque IPAs have the power to determine which information can be disclosed.

Add to this a similar provision that allows the IPAs to “evaluate and process investments and incentives data before submission to the National Economic and Development Authority.” Similarly, the bill is silent on the disclosure of actual information on tax incentives given to particular firms. The allowed disclosure is limited “on a sectoral basis.”

We have given enough examples. Reformers in and out of government have a most difficult task not only in having the good bills passed but also in ensuring that these bills will not be severely compromised.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.

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