THE 17th Congress began Monday morning, July 25, with its new leaders outlining their legislative agenda, in line with the expected program of government articulated later that afternoon in President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Both the address and the new leadership in this Congress marked a historic transition for the country’s southern region of Mindanao, from where Mr. Duterte hails, along with the two leaders of the 17th Congress, Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel III and Speaker of the House of Representatives Pantaleon D. Alvarez.

Mr. Pimentel took the opportunity to highlight this shared distinction with Messrs. Duterte and Alvarez in his speech following his election by his colleagues as the new Senate President.

He said he found it “greatly gratifying that for the first time in the history of our country, a Mindanaonon, Rodrigo Duterte,” has assumed office as President.

“And that at this very hour, coincidentally, the members of the House of Representatives are installing by overwhelming numbers the Honorable Pantaleon Alvarez, a congressman representing the 1st District of Davao Del Norte, a province in Mindanao, as their Speaker.”

“Honorable” was a word often mentioned in mutual deference among the legislators that Monday morning, in contrast to a presidential directive last week discouraging that adjective as well as “His Excellency” for Mr. Duterte in all executive correspondence.

“It had never been this way before, my dear friends. In fact, for a long time, the people of Mindanao have felt excluded from the center of political power that defined policies and programs for the progress and development of the nation,” Mr. Pimentel said in his speech.

“Now, history seems to be making up for all those times of exclusion. And it is now mandating that the two main branches of our tripartite governmental setup, namely, the executive and the legislative departments, be led by individuals from Mindanao,” he added.

“But, more important, the above-mentioned events now give us, Mindanaonons, a singular opportunity to show the nation — and the world at large — that we are up to the challenge, in serving the best interests of our people.”

Communications Secretary Martin M. Andanar also noted in his statement, “The election of Senate President Pimentel and House Speaker Alvarez is auspicious and timely. Three of the country’s top leaders came from Mindanao.”

NEW ORDER

Before Mr. Pimentel, the only other Senate leader from Mindanao is his father, Aquilino Q. Pimentel, Jr., who was back in the Senate on Monday to witness his son’s oathtaking as Senate President.

In Mr. Alvarez’s case, his predecessor from Mindanao is Arroyo-era House Speaker Prospero C. Nograles, also from Davao.

Crossing party-lines in a loose alliance under this new order in the Senate, 20 of his colleagues voted for Mr. Pimentel, including his rival for the Senate top post, Ralph G. Recto, whom Mr. Pimentel voted for in turn.

Senators Francis G. Escudero and Antonio F. Trillanes IV also voted for Mr. Recto.

Noticeably absent was Senator Alan Peter S. Cayetano, who posted in part on his Facebook page:

“2 Groups Offered me a deal. Taking just 1 of the two offers would have made me Senate President.

“Yet somehow I was never tempted to take the deal because On May 7, 2016, in Luneta, on Our Historic Miting De Avance, I Made A Commitment […] to help and protect our President….

Mr. Cayetano also said he “thought long and hard about it and I asked myself, how could a deal that made me S. P. but put the President and his agenda in jeopardy, be one that helps or protects him?”

“I asked myself this question since I promised myself I will only get it if I can help and protect the President and his agenda, otherwise I’ll be inutil[e], powerful yet powerless.

“I pray for Sen. Koko and all the Senators that we may fulfill the people’s mandate for change so decisively placed on the shoulders of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.”

‘COMMON GROUND’

Mr. Pimentel, in his address, recited a list of “the essential elements of the Program of Government for Change” that would also be among the major themes of Mr. Duterte’s afternoon address– among them, “the adoption of a Federal System of Government”; “the all-out search for Peace in our land’; an “all-out war against crime, drugs, and corruption”; “reform[ing] our taxation system and mak[ing] it more just and truly progressive”; and “reform[ing] the budget and declar[ing] a war on waste.”

In an interview later with ANC, Mr. Pimentel made a partial disclosure of the senators who will head the following committees: blue-ribbon (Senator Richard J. Gordon), education (Senator Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV), environment (Senator Cynthia A. Villar), local governments (Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara), public services (Senator Grace Poe), and trade and industry (Senator Juan Miguel F. Zubiri).

For his part, Mr. Recto said in his speech as the new Senate minority leader, “This is one Senate minority, I assure you, that will know when to stand its ground, and when to seek common ground.”

In the backdrop of current public issues involving the Duterte administration, the senator also said: “We affirm that progress should not always be at the expense of rights…. We believe that in building a kinder and gentler society, we must appeal to our people’s basic decency and not to their basest fears.”

“We don’t diminish our sovereignty, we defend it,” added Mr. Recto.

“There is one area… where we should work together — and that is to defend the institution from any and all attempts to emasculate it,” he also said.?

“The weakening of this 100 year old body should not happen on our watch, or else those who came before us will haunt us for being feeble trustees of this proud heritage.”

For his part, Mr. Alvarez reaffirmed his earlier legislative initiatives seeking, among others, to restore the death penalty and to set the transition towards a federal form of government.

As widely expected, Mr. Alvarez was elected Speaker by a landslide vote of 251 of his colleagues. His challengers, Quezon Rep. Danilo E. Suarez of the United Nationalist Alliance and Ifugao Rep. Teddy B. Baguilat of the Liberal Party, got seven and eight votes, respectively. Twenty-one members of the House abstained, including Mr. Alvarez himself, and one entered a “no vote.” (Mr. Suarez voted for Mr. Alvarez while Baguilat voted for himself.)

Mr. Alvarez, who represents the first district of Davao del Norte, was nominated by the outgoing Speaker of the 16th Congress, Quezon City Rep. Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr., who gave up his bid for the minority leadership bid and joined the House “supermajority.”

According to previous rules on electing the House leaders, the contender for speakership with the second highest number of vote will automatically lead the minority bloc. Mr. Baguilat said, however, that his colleagues “presented a new set of rules.”

Before the nominations, Representative Jose L. Atienza, Jr. of the Buhay party-list asked Ilocos Norte Rep. Rodolfo C. FariAas, then acting as majority floor leader, how the House would vote for the minority leader.

Mr. FariAas said those who will vote for the losing candidates and who will abstain will form the minority bloc.

Mr. Baguilat in his tweet later said: “If we follow old rules [and] by tradition, 8 votes are enough to make me minority floor leader. But they changed the rules. So many abstentions.”

Mr. FariAas was elected House majority floor leader. Elected deputy speakers were Representatives Eric D. Singson (Ilocos Sur), Mercedes K. Alvarez (Negros Occidental), Fredenil H. Castro (Capiz), Raneo E. Abu (Batangas) and Romero Federico S. Quimbo (Marikina).

HOUSE PRIORITY MEASURES

In his speech following his election as House speaker, Mr. Alvarez reiterated the need to restore the death penalty and revert the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9, saying the current law on juvenile justice, enacted in 2006 and amended in 2012, “was motivated by noble intentions. But it has been a failure on the ground.”

He also called for emergency powers for Mr. Duterte– which Mr. Duterte himself would reiterate in his SONA– to address what he called the traffic “crisis” particularly in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu.

On revising the Government Procurement Act, Mr. Alvarez said, “Unlike a free-size shirt, the Procurement Law should not be a one-size-fits-all kind of law. We should put in enough flexibility to address all foreseeable possibilities that may arise in the course of government procurement.”

Not a few of the Speaker’s proposals are related to public concerns that dominated the previous administration and the last election campaign. “The law on income taxation should be simplified into one imposed on gross income progressively. Tax laws have become so complicated that they are exploited by corrupt BIR officials in order to extort money from the taxpayers,” he said.

“A simplified law on taxation would encourage people to pay taxes and contribute to a society that they know will take care of them,” he added.

Mr. Alvarez also targeted labor laws as well as the practice of contractualization or “endo.”

“The labor laws need revision. We should increase the penalties presently in our statutes for the non-payment of minimum wage, and the National Wages and Productivity Commission and DoLE should have an arm that will make sure violators are prosecuted. The practice of Endo should be looked into. Manpower supply agencies should be mandated, upon pain of criminal liability, to comply with all labor standards on wages and benefits, and the employer be made solidarily liable,” he said.

“And, of course, the most holy grail of all: the revision of the 1987 Constitution and the transformation of our system of government from a unitary presidential form to a federal parliamentary one,” Mr. Alvarez said Monday morning, citing a major theme of Mr. Duterte’s SONA later that day.

“The power of imperial Manila over the rest of our nation has to end. Our LGUs need to be allowed to stand on their own feet and to develop and grow as they see fit, subject only to standards that the national government may set. This, among others, should be done by a Constitutional Convention within a time limit set by Congress,” Mr. Alvarez said.

The Speaker also called for the enactment of a “meaningful Freedom of Information Law applicable to all branches of government,” taking off from Mr. Duterte’s executive order issued Sunday on freedom of information as it applies to the Executive; increased pensions for retirees; and legislative oversight on mining including the authority to grant a legislative franchise on mining companies.

Source: Business World