BY RAYMOND AFRICA and WENDELL VIGILIA
SENATE President Vicente Sotto III yesterday urged his colleagues to pass measures that will alleviate the lives of Filipinos amid the COVID-19 pandemic while Speaker Cayetano rallied lawmakers to lose the “VIP” mentality and focus on ensuring the safety of workers as they return to work amid the pandemic.
They made the call in their respective chambers at the opening of the Second Regular Session of the 18th Congress. The Senate opened the session at around 10 a.m. with 17 senators physically present while six attended through virtual means. At the House, 21 lawmakers were physically present at the Batasan Pambansa Complex in Quezon City, while 280 members participated through online platforms.
Sotto said the Senate must continue to save lives by promptly responding to the peoples’ needs.
Sotto said he wants senators to craft a measure to strengthen the country’s “digital landscape” to improve the digital highway which will support various communication and online transactional needs under the new normal.
He also called for bills that will upgrade the distance learning system, which he said will now be the new normal for learners.
The public transport system, he said, also needs innovations for a “safe, efficient, and dependable” system that will ferry workers “so that industries may again produce goods and services, and people can resume earning incomes to spend.”
“Priority should be given in support of the arts. We must rebuild our nation in both body and soul. Great civilizations before us endured not only because they had material wealth, but because they lived a life nurtured by writers and artists,” he added.
Sotto also thanked all medical and allied frontliners who have been working to help contain the spread of the virus.
The Senate is expected to pass the Bayanihan Act 2 on third and final reading today. It was passed on second reading before Congress went on sine die break on June 4. The measure seeks to extend the powers granted to President Duterte under RA 11469 to carry out national policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those who were not physically present were Senators Richard Gordon, Imee Marcos, Emmanuel Pacquiao, Francis Pangilinan, Aquilino Pimentel III, and Cynthia Villar, Sen. Leila de Lima remains in detention at the PNP Custodial Center in Crame Crame.
Plexi-glass barriers were put up in between the senators’ tables as part of health measures to avoid transmission of the virus.
Only about 100 of the 1,800 Senate employees were allowed to report for work at the Senate building. Members of the media were still barred from entering the Senate compound.
At the House, Cayetano told colleagues not to “delude ourselves with the thought that Congress is primus inter pares or the first among equals.”
“No, I am here to tell you that it is we, the members of their House, who must rise to the occasion and fulfil the mandate that the Filipino people have entrusted to us,” he said in his speech.
He also said workers need to be protected as they are the lifeblood of the economy. He said the House should take the opportunity to bring overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) home “not in boxes, but as the conquering heroes that they are.”
“Properly supported and given the right opportunities, these returning OFWs will form the first wave of our offensive in the countryside. Armed with the technology, training, and discipline they have learned from other countries, they have the ability to transform our economy practically overnight,” he said.
Since the government will be playing a significant role in such endeavor, he proposed that Congress work to strengthen the agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing sectors, “augmented by robust investments in infrastructure, to be the primary source of employment and growth.”
The House is set to work on the passage of the proposed national budget for 2021 in the next few months, especially since there is a need for a COVID response budget as the country struggles to return to normal.
Cayetano called for the revitalization of the Philippine creative industry, “once the envy of Asia, but now a mere shadow of its former glory.”
The Speaker said the leadership will file a bill establishing the Department of Arts and Culture “so that instead of being a casualty of COVID-19, Filipino creativity and artistry will be an integral part of our arsenal for recovery.”
SPREADING THE WEALTH
While amendments to the Constitution and the proposed shift to federalism are not among the priority measures of the House, said provinces should be made the new centers of development, Cayetano said.
“COVID-19 has shown us the weak underbelly of our big cities. How easily they can be brought to their knees – and with it the whole nation – by disease and infection. We should never allow ourselves to be caught off guard again. This is a clarion call for our urban planners, engineers, and architects – the government needs your ideas. Help us build a better Philippines by decongesting our cities and spreading the wealth to every island,” he said.
Cayetano said Congress must approach the problem and prepare “as if we are at war – which to a large extent we are, not with a foreign aggressor, but with an unseen enemy that shows no mercy, gives no quarter and takes no prisoners.”