- A year of overcoming challenges on health, economy and accountability, and a year of giving voice to women, children and the vulnerable sectors of society.
- For the four opposition senators, it was an opportunity to relentlessly do their part as fiscalizers in the Senate despite the limitations on physical interactions and stringent health protocols.
- It was also the year the Senate started to fully embrace the notion of conducting committee hearings and plenary sessions virtually or via teleconferencing.
It was a year of overcoming challenges on health, economy and accountability, and a year of giving voice to women, children and the vulnerable sectors of society.
This is how the Senate minority bloc viewed the year 2020 that was primarily marked by uncertainty due to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country right from the first quarter of the year.
It was obviously not the easiest year for the whole country and the government. The eruption of Taal Volcano in January seemed to be a premonition of an incoming unrest in the months to follow.
For the four opposition senators, it was an opportunity to relentlessly do their part as fiscalizers in the Senate despite the limitations on physical interactions and stringent health protocols authorities had imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Sen. Risa Hontivero noted that in 2020, the Senate was able to advance legislation and programs that seek to uplift Filipino families throughout the year.
“Major progress was made in the Senate in relation to proposed measures not only to protect women and children but also helping the vulnerable sectors and Filipino families better deal with the ongoing health and economic crisis brought about by the pandemic,” Hontiveros said.
Probe on ‘pastillas scheme’ scandal
Hontiveros, who chairs the Senate Committee on Women, Children and Family Relations and Gender Equality, took the lead in investigating the so-called “pastillas” scheme.
The year-long probe bared the systematic, pyramid-like “business model” that facilitated the illegal entry of thousands of Chinese nationals to the country in exchange for hefty bribes. The scheme itself led to the discovery of the number of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators or POGOs involved in the prostitution of women and children in the country.
“While there’s still more work to do to pin down the mastermind, we are thankful that we have made significant progress towards dismantling the networks in and outside of government whose misdeeds put Filipino women and children in harm’s way,” Hontiveros said.
It was also the year the Senate started to fully embrace the notion of conducting committee hearings and plenary sessions virtually or via teleconferencing.
Historically, the Senate has never conducted cyber sessions even after Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon filed a measure seeking to allow fellow minority and detained Senator Leila de Lima to participate in Senate sessions virtually from Camp Crame.
This year, opposition senators actively participated in a number of controversial issues hounding the country, particularly during the Senate’s investigation of rampant corruption in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).
Investigation on PhilHealth irregularities
Drilon scored the PhilHealth’s so-called Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) scheme, which he described as a “misnomer” because of the system’s nature as a cash advance process and not as reimbursements.
The Senate minority chief noted back then that the IRM system had become a tool for politics or corruption for the state health insurer instead of helping hospitals deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The opposition lawmakers were also at the forefront of the Senate’s hearing on the ABS-CBN Corporation’s franchise renewal with Drilon and Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan fighting for the major network’s renewal of its franchise. ABS-CBN’s radio-TV operations were shut down after the House of Representatives’ legislative franchise panel denied ABS-CBN’s application.
Drilon said he believes the “sword of Damocles will continue to hang perilously over other media networks” in the years to come.
“Both the legislators and the Executive can wield the sword at their whim and caprice. This is when democracy starts to weaken,” the minority leader warned.
Pangilinan, on the other hand, said the decision to deny the network a franchise only showed that the government does not care about public interest.
Anti-insurgency and disaster assistance fund
Opposition senators also added their voice to the clamor to rechannel the P19-billion anti-insurgency fund to assist those devastated by the Typhoons Rolly and Quinta which inundated major parts in Luzon late in November.
Lodged under the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), Drilon and Pangilinan strongly suggested that the fund be used to augment the calamity fund and quick response fund of some local government units that have already depleted their resources because of their own response to the coronavirus pandemic and or be used to increase the government’s budget for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines.
But their call fell on deaf ears as Congress approved the proposed P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 retaining the budget for the NTF-ELCAC.
Drilon, Pangilinan, Hontiveros, and De Lima also actively pursued higher funding for all COVID-19 frontliners, for livelihood and cash assistance for workers affected by the pandemic when the Congress deliberated on the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Bayanihan 1) and Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2).
During the Senate’s deliberation on the proposed 2021 national budget, the opposition lawmakers also struggled to find funds to amplify the state’s procurement of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 and help ensure that the government can achieve its target of inoculating 80 percent of the country’s population.
Drilon had sought for the realignment of the P33-billion “parked” funds in the Philippine International Trading Center (PITC) to help the cash-strapped national coffer. However, this did not materialize, much to the dismay of the minority senators.
Drilon slams budget priorities
The Senate chief fiscalizer had earlier called out the Duterte administration for submitting a “business-as-usual” budget, describing the 2021 national budget as exposing the government’s misplaced priorities.
According to Drilon, the lack of a definite source of funds to immunize around 60 million Filipinos next year, is a real cause of concern for the country’s future, cringing at the thought of what could happen to the Philippines in 2021 amid the global race.
“It is unfortunate that in these uncertain times, the budget is creating additional uncertainty. This makes Filipinos wary about the future,” Drilon lamented.
Opposition senators lamented how the government is keeping Filipinos in the dark about the COVID-19 vaccine roll out.
They also expressed anxiety over the lack of a clear roadmap on how the government intends to execute their COVID-19 vaccination program, saying this adds to the worries of Filipinos about the future “of our country and our ability to fight the pandemic.”
“Our health system is unfortunately, at this stage, a big question mark to me because of the very fluid plans for acquisition, funding for the vaccine and the logistical expense that goes with it. No definite revenue source is identified,” Drilon said of the outcome of the national budget.
Following the ratification of the proposed P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021, Drilon expressed hope that the Philippines next year would be able to successfully hurdle the challenges brought about by the pandemic on the country’s health and economic sector.
The opposition lawmaker said they are still optimistic that the nation would be able to weather through the uncertainties that lie ahead as the government prepares for the arrival of the vaccines in the country in the middle of next year.
“The comfort level is not very high that we can achieve a certain degree of confidence insofar as our public health is concerned,” the minority chief said.
“I guess we just have to look up at the sky and pray,” Drilon said.