The 18th Congress officially came to a close this week, as the chambers started to welcome the newest batch of legislators—comprised of both old and new faces—tasked with advancing the interests and advocacies of their constituents nationwide.
With some measure of hope and excitement, we look forward to what will transpire in the upcoming 19th Congress. But we also look back at the recently concluded Congress with some pride, realizing just how many difficulties our colleagues, the Senate secretariat and our respective staff needed to transcend as the Covid-19 pandemic upended so many parts of our society.
For the first time in history, plenary sessions, committee hearings, and meetings were conducted online, as the virus forced numerous lockdowns and, sadly, cost thousands of lives, including some from both chambers of Congress. But the Senate and the House of Representatives refused to back down from Covid-19, choosing instead to face the greatest humanitarian crisis of recent times head on.
Despite extreme difficulties, the “Pandemic Congress” pulled through without any blueprint to follow, and managed to approve several key pieces of legislation to aid Filipinos and empower the country as a whole to ably respond to the pandemic.
Two Bayanihan laws were passed to ensure that the government’s response to the health crisis would proceed without interruption. Both laws provided much-needed assistance to our health-care workers who remain front and center in the battle against Covid-19; affected groups, specifically micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that have languished due to the lack of economic activity; and, workers who were displaced and left jobless. These landmark legislations provided various subsidies to low-income households, to the transport sector, and to those unemployed; additional allowances to health-care workers; condonation and extensions for certain debt payments; and a standby fund for testing and the procurement of Covid-19 medication and vaccines.
These measures were appropriately followed by the Covid-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021 that we sponsored, which expedited the purchase and administration of Covid-19 vaccines and hence sparked the nationwide bakunahan for immunizing all covered Filipinos. The law provided the government with leverage in procuring vaccines as it authorized the Department of Health (DOH) and the National Task Force (NTF) against Covid-19 to undertake negotiated procurement of vaccines. It also widened participation in the vaccination campaign as it allowed local government units and private entities to purchase vaccines and needed supplies under specific conditions.
With the help of our colleagues in both Houses of Congress, we made sure, as the Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, to include key initiatives in the 2021 and the 2022 national budgets that would help address the pandemic and revive the Philippine economy towards recovery.
The 2021 national budget provided funding for key programs such as the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines, support for blended learning, free Wi-Fi in public places, hiring of contact tracers, social pension for indigents, and rehabilitation of areas and resettlement of individuals affected by calamities.
Meanwhile, the 2022 national budget placed utmost priority on pandemic response, which was prescient given that the country was on the heels of an Omicron variant surge. Funds were appropriated to the Covid-19 human resource for health emergency hiring, laboratory network commodities, the DOH’s epidemiology and surveillance program, and operations for national reference laboratories. The budget also reinforced the DOH’s Health Facilities Enhancement Program (HFEP) and the operations of government hospitals nationwide.
The 18th Congress was also able to pass the Public Health Emergency Benefits and Allowances for Health Care Workers Act, which we authored and sponsored. This measure guaranteed the continuous grant of mandatory benefits and allowances to all public and private health-care workers and non-health workers in hospitals, health facilities, laboratories, medical temporary treatment facilities and vaccination sites.
Several laws were also passed to establish an enabling environment for the business sector to continue flourishing amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. These include such laws as the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE), which rationalized corporate income taxes and the fiscal incentives system, and the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer (FIST) Act, which helped dispose non-performing assets in the banking sector. Measures were also enacted to further open up our economy, including the amendments to the Public Service Act, Foreign Investments Act, and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act.
While this Congress’ transcripts may be inundated with “you’re on mute” or with pet dog barks, all our colleagues rightfully deserve commendation after delivering legislation for all Filipinos amid the difficulties of Covid-19. Modesty aside, the 18th Congress stands as one of the Philippine legislature’s finest moments. Hopefully, it would serve as an example and inspiration for the next generation of legislators.
Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 18 years—9 years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and 9 as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 250 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
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