What kinds of laws do our Congress legislate?

The House of Representatives in session. Photo from Philstar.comThe House of Representatives in session. Photo from Philstar.com

It must have been a shock for health officials and public health advocates to have learned that about a billion pesos was slashed from the Department of Health’s budget. The amount, allocated for the purchase of reproductive health commodities, was reportedly stricken out surreptitiously during the bicameral conference for the 2016 budget bill.

Reproductive health is among the issues considered priority by majority of Filipinos. Pulsa Asia’s 2007 survey on family planning, for instance, shows that an overwhelmingly majority of Filipinos believe in the importance of family planning and in government’s duty to provide budgetary support for it.

Its 2010 survey, on the other hand, indicated that about seven out of 10 Filipinos agree with the reproductive health provisions of what would become the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012.

The more recent 2015 Ulat ng Bayan, meanwhile, reveals that controlling the burgeoning population is among the ten most urgent concerns (although less pressing compared to the need to control inflation and increasing workers’ pay).

If legislators are supposed to champion the aspirations of their constituents, then those who orchestrated the slash betrayed their mandate. Could this be an isolated case of one or two legislators reneging on their duty? Unfortunately, the pattern of legislative output in the past two decades suggests such inadvertence is collective.

Table 1 lists the top 10 issues Filipinos consider as urgent concerns, based on Pulse Asia’s 2001 Ulat ng Bayan national survey.

Year Issues Percent of respondents
2001 national economic recovery 48
  poverty 40
  peace 38
  high prices 36
  low pay 28
  trust in government 20
  illegal drugs 19
  graft and corruption 18
  criminality 18
  law enforcement 14
  human rights 12

For 2004, the list was pretty much the same. 

Year Issues Percent of respondents
2004 controlling inflation/high prices 50
  graft and corruption 35
  national economic recovery 34
  peace 32
  poverty 29
  low pay 29
  trust in government 19
  abolishing or decreasing the additional PPA1 17
  criminality 15
  terrorism 10
  enforcing the law on influential as well ordinary people 10
  human rights 8

1. Meralco’s power purchase adjustment

In general, Filipinos consider socioeconomic issues as urgent matters. They regard the need to control rising prices and economic rebound as priority issues the government must tackle. The year 2006 is a case in point.

Year Issues Percent of respondents
2006 controlling inflation 51
  graft and corruption 37
  low pay 36
  poverty 34
  national economic recovery 25
  peace 24
  trust in the government 20
  abolishing or decreasing the addtitional PPA 19
  destruction of the environment 15
  criminality 11

We also see it even in the more recent 2015 Ulat ng Bayan survey.

Year Issues Percent of respondents
2015 controlling inflation 47
  improving the pay of workers 46
  creating more jobs 39
  poverty 36
  peace 21
  criminality 20
  enforcing the law on influential as well as ordinary people 16
  destruction of the environment 15
  population growth 9
  territorial integrity 7

Source: Pulse Asia 

We expect our representatives to respond to these issues and work for more laws that address these concerns. However, as far back as the restoration of democracy in 1987, Congress has been pretty much consistent in what it regards as policy priorities. The tables below show the most common areas of legislation from the 8th to the 14th Congress. These are bills that have passed the third reading at the House of Representatives, during all post-Marcos administrations, except that of Benigno Aquino III. 

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 8th Congress        

building hospitals 306
building schools 219
naming and renaming  structures 214
franchises 75
declaration of a holiday 33
local government 26
governance and reorganization 22
elections and suffrage 21
taxation 17
agriculture and food 12

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 9th Congress

building schools 208
franchises 140
declaration of a holiday 35
naming and renaming  structures 32
building hospitals 28
tourism 22
local government 16
elections and suffrage 13
taxation 13
trade, industry and economy 12
education policy 11

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 10th Congress

building schools 289
franchises 155
public works 38
local government 33
building hospitals 29
naming and renaming  structures 19
declaration of a holiday 17
public lands 10
tourism 9
trade, industry, and economy 7
professional regulation 7

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 11th Congress

building schools 255
public works 248
franchises 46
local government 44
declaration of a holiday 27
environment 15
naming and renaming  structures 12
tourism 10
education policy 7
elections and suffrage 7
public lands 6
creating a new agency or court 6
children 6

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 12th Congress

building schools 87
public works 48
franchises 32
naming and renaming  structures 18
declaration of a holiday 17
local government 13
professional regulation 12
creating a new agency or court 11
taxation 8
law and justice 8
environment 7
banking and finance 7

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 13th Congress

building schools 440
public works 295
declaration of a holiday 44
local government 40
environment 34
law and justice 30
public lands 30
naming and renaming  structures 27
franchises 20
agriculture and food 15
taxation 10
labor 10
creating economic zones 10

Top 10 areas of legislation in the 14th Congress

building schools 610
public works 349
declaration of a holiday 62
environment 45
naming and renaming  structures 38
law and justice 34
local government 31
public lands 26
creating a new agency or court 26
agriculture and food 23
public health 22

Source: House of Representatives

With the types of laws passed since 1987 it can be observed that there is a particular tendency toward local and private laws—in particular, laws that provide local infrastructure projects such as the construction of school buildings, hospitals, and other public works. But this should not come as a surprise because constituencies expect representatives to bring home as much of the bacon (or “pork” when it was still warranted prior to Belgica v. Executive Secretary).

By theory, reelection-conscious politicians eager to make a maximal reputational impression on prospective voters will try to deliver projects into their districts to bolster their reelection bid, according to authors, Shepsle, Van Houweling, Abrams and Hanson. Constituencies, in turn, are no stranger to large billboards in front of school buildings or by the roadside publicizing how these edifices were made possible through the auspices of their honorable representatives.

Moreover, these types of legislation are issue neutral, non-controversial, and unlikely to spark debate among colleagues in Congress. It may only be incidental that it is also in such local infrastructure projects that many unexplained disbursements take place.

Interestingly, even on laws considered to be of national significance, the most frequent areas of legislation are still “low risk” (see table below). Obviously, the grant of legislative franchises to corporations to operate a business or to exploit natural resources is a favorite area of legislation, even on laws of national significance. Franchises certainly are important to invite investments and to create jobs but must it take precedence over more salient legislation such as taxation or public health?

Representatives, by definition, are supposed to advocate for the collective aspirations of the public. Ideally, therefore, legislative enactments must also reflect the policy demands of the people. But legislators are also rational, and they assume that constituents will reward them with reelection in return for the program benefits they bring home.

Is there an alternative? If it is any consolation, Stein and Bickers (1994) found that only the electorally “vulnerable” politicians benefit from distributive spending, which they pursue to address their thinning reelection prospects. We cannot expect politicians in the Philippines to change anytime soon, however, unless the voters themselves take on a major paradigm shift.

Local and National Bills Passed (third reading) by the Philippine House of Representatives, 1987-2010

Policy areas local % of total (6,130)   Policy areas national % of total (6,130)
Building/reclassifying schools 2,085 34.0131   grant of franchise 268 4.3719
public works 975 15.9054   taxation 62 1.0114
Building hospitals 381 6.2153   law and justice 62 1.0114
naming and renaming structures 350 5.7096   public health 57 0.9299
declaring holidays 215 3.5073   education policy 54 0.8809
grant of franchise 213 3.4747   professional regulation 50 0.8157
local government related 174 2.8385   trade, industry and economy 48 0.7830
environment related 75 1.2235   governance and reorganization 45 0.7341
dealing with public lands 68 1.1093   elections related 39 0.6362
Tourism related 63 1.0277   labor 36 0.5873
Creating new agency, court or body 48 0.7830   environment related 35 0.5710
agriculture and food 30 0.4894   crime and law enforcement 34 0.5546
law and justice 26 0.4241   agriculture and food 34 0.5546
Creating economic zones 23 0.3752   banking and finance 32 0.5220
elections related 16 0.2610   civil service 31 0.5057
infrastructure and public goods 9 0.1468   Housing 30 0.4894
historical heritage, culture  and language 8 0.1305   appropriation 30 0.4894
youth and sports 7 0.1142   local government related 28 0.4568
citizenship 6 0.0979   public order and safety 25 0.4078
education policy 4 0.0653   Women 23 0.3752
energy 4 0.0653   military and defense 23 0.3752
national disaster 3 0.0489   historical heritage, culture  and language 22 0.3589
peace efforts (includes ARMM) 2 0.0326   social welfare 21 0.3426
science and technology 2 0.0326   citizenship 20 0.3263
trade, industry and economy 2 0.0326   declaring holidays 19 0.3100
banking and finance 1 0.0163   youth and sports 16 0.2610
Children 1 0.0163   persons and family relations 16 0.2610
foreign policy 1 0.0163   energy 16 0.2610
Housing 1 0.0163   Veterans 15 0.2447
social welfare 1 0.0163   infrastructure and public goods 15 0.2447
taxation 1 0.0163   cooperatives and small businesses 14 0.2284
Agrarian reform 0 0.0000   science and technology 13 0.2121
animal welfare 0 0.0000   Children 12 0.1958
appropriation 0 0.0000   dealing with public lands 11 0.1794
civic groups 0 0.0000   migrants and OFW 10 0.1631
civil service 0 0.0000   peace efforts (includes ARMM) 8 0.1305
cooperatives and small businesses 0 0.0000   Creating new agency, court or body 8 0.1305
crime and law enforcement 0 0.0000   Agrarian reform 8 0.1305
governance and reorganization 0 0.0000   naming and renaming structures 7 0.1142
labor 0 0.0000   Building/reclassifying schools 7 0.1142
migrants and OFW 0 0.0000   foreign policy 6 0.0979
military and defense 0 0.0000   civic groups 6 0.0979
persons and family relations 0 0.0000   public works 5 0.0816
Population 0 0.0000   national disaster 5 0.0816
professional regulation 0 0.0000   Tourism related 4 0.0653
public health 0 0.0000   Creating economic zones 2 0.0326
public order and safety 0 0.0000   animal welfare 2 0.0326
Veterans 0 0.0000   Population 1 0.0163
Women 0 0.0000   Building hospitals 0 0.0000

Source: House of Representatives

Alicor Panao
Author: Alicor Panao
Rogelio Alicor L. Panao is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman. He holds an MA in Industrial Relations from UPD and an MA in Public Administration and Ph D in Political Science from the International Christian University, Tokyo. His research interests include quantitative analysis and quantitative research methods.