Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, the quintessential tax man

Published February 16, 2022, 5:37 AM

by Milwida Guevara

My Facebook post about Senator Juan Ponce Enrile elicited varied responses. Some were critical and cynical. But compliments and encouraging comments came from those who have worked with him.

 I had the great privilege of working with Senator Enrile as Chair of the Ways and Means Committee of the Senate in 1993. I knew him as a tax scholar—the first Filipino to finish a Master of Laws and a graduate program on International Taxation from Harvard University. He knew the theories and principles of taxation inside out. It was from him that I learned the territoriality principle in taxation. He penned the General Principles of Taxation in the Philippines (Chapter II of the National Internal Revenue Code) in his own beautiful handwriting. Every discussion with him was like facing a judge. His questions were piercing and were thrown like rapid fire.    Our team at DOF spent sleepless nights preparing for Committee hearings and one-on-one discussions with him. He did not trust estimates that came from our excel sheets. He checked the numbers at random using long division and multiplication. I was totally amazed at his prowess in dividing billions of pesos by millions.

The policy reforms that we worked on were contentious. He described them as results of “blood, sweat, and tears.”  What could be more difficult than facing the “Solid Northern Alliance” in changing the system of taxing cigarettes, alcohol, and beer? All sorts of arguments were poised against specific taxation, i.e., using units of measures such as packs of cigarettes and liters of alcohol instead of prices as the basis of the tax. The oppositors reckoned that the proposed shift would penalize the poor. They predicted that revenue collection would fall because the government would be unable to capture increases in prices. But he successfully downplayed their arguments by proving that manufacturers used marketing arms to underprice cigarettes to avoid paying the right amount of tax. He questioned why buyers of cigarettes had the same incorporators, held office in the same building, and were incorporated on the same dates. The Senator was in his element asking prosecutorial questions. The manufacturers were squirming and sweating on their seats and appeared to experience a heart attack. 

Senator Enrile had to parry several amendments that could weaken the Expanded VAT. Lawmakers shamelessly introduced exemptions from lobby groups, including from their own families. Preferential treatment was proposed for shipping, copra, security agencies, among many others. Having earned his trust, he consulted me on all the amendments and upheld the policies on why they could not be given. He removed the VAT exemption on BOI firms, which generated substantial revenues, upheld the equity principle, and limited zero-rating to exports.   He championed the reform of the excise tax on petroleum that complemented oil deregulation. In this campaign, he incurred the ire of drivers, operators, and the public. But he stood his ground. The budget cannot forever bleed because of subsidies that wealthy vehicle owners ultimately enjoyed.

And there was the thorough reform of the income tax, which was very unpopular. The Senator defended an income tax on the fringe benefit of executives. He sponsored a minimum income tax on corporations and disallowed a tax arbitrage on interest expense. He proposed that interest on dollar deposits be treated in parity with peso deposits.  

 It was farthest from my mind that I would be able to see and appreciate his humanity. I experienced his kindness and compassion as he shielded me from being repeatedly thrown out of the bicameral conference committees. He invited me to join him in his press briefings instead of just being on the sidelines. He asked his assistants to see that I get home safely when committee meetings ended way past midnight. He stood at my defense when lawmakers complained to the President that I was causing a rift between the Executive and Legislative departments. And I never expected his generous offer to send me to Houston when he heard I was sick.

Not many people remembered that the Senator celebrated another year on Valentine’s Day. I can only thank Senator Enrile for making the Philippine tax laws more just and efficient and treating ordinary people like me with dignity and respect.

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