The then Senate President Edgardo Angara invited me to head the newly created Senate Tax and Research Office. But there was a big problem. The Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile did not want me. “She comes from the Department of Finance and has a lot of baggage.” And so I lost the position and stayed with the Department of Finance. But the problem remained. How could I establish rapport with the Senator?
Luck smiled on me when the Senator held a committee hearing in Cebu. Our plane was delayed for several hours. I took courage to sit beside him and engaged him in a conversation. I told him that my father worked as an attorney in the law firm of his dad, Dewitt, Perkins and Enrile. It is as if the snow melted. He took me in his confidence from that day on.
It helped very much that the Senator was a great scholar. He was keenly interested in taxation having been the First Filipino to finish graduate studies on International Taxation from Harvard. He read all our studies meticulously. It was like defending a thesis before an examiner every day. And being a topnotch lawyer, he was a prosecutor, a member of the jury, and a judge all wrapped in one. He never trusted our numbers which we estimated using Excel. He rechecked them manually using long division and multiplication.
It was during Senator JPE’s time that the Executive Branch proposed an expansion of the VAT to cover services in addition to goods. It was a contentious reform and we were defending the VAT as if it were a new reform. The Supreme Court issued a TRO against the expanded VAT, and the Senate went into an R-VAT (Reformed VAT) to close the loopholes and placate the complaining public.
It was also during JPE’s time that the ad valorem tax on cigarettes, beer, petroleum products, and liquor was converted into specific taxation. This reform literally skinned me alive. We were ready with all our statistics and logic. And since the message of the policy reform was solid, the only alternative was to attack the messenger. The harassment came in all forms—humiliation in Committee hearing and being kicked out of the room during Executive sessions.
But Senator Enrile stood by my side. He insisted that my presence was a sine qua non. After every battering exercise, he served “sinigang na tuna “to dry my tears and heal my bruised ego.”
The Congress was so fierce at that time. Those were the days when Senators Maceda, Gonzales, Angara, Osmena, Santiago, Pimentel, Roco, Drilon, Magsaysay, and Tatad took the podium one after the other and asked incisive questions. Since Senator JPE embraced and understood the core and details of the reforms, he defended them staunchly. He rewrote the entire National Internal Code to make all the provisions coherent with the new principles introduced: territoriality principle, fringe benefits tax, minimum corporate income tax, FCDU tax, among the many others. Those who criticized the reforms which he introduced conveniently forget that the tax effort reached 17% and laid the foundation for future reforms.
I felt defeated when amendments were inserted such as the multiple specific tax rates, and the withdrawal of the automatic indexations scheme. JPE reminded me that reform making is an incremental process and compromises are inevitable.
Senator JPE is a controversial person. But he will always stand out as the brilliant Tax man, who stood for principles against lobby money and powerful interest. Most of all who, he is a kind and generous man who offered to send me to Houston and get the best medical care.
Senator JPE, Happy birthday with great respect and gratitude. JPE’s birthday is February 14.