By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

President Rodrigo R. Duterte has asked Congress to further ease business transactions by amending a law against bureaucratic red tape, according to a Senate leader.

“He wants to further amend the Anti-red Tape and Ease of Doing Business law,” Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in a mobile phone message on Thursday. “He is willing to be summoned if needed. I told him the better word is invite. But only if necessary.”

The Senate will consult the House of Representatives for a draft bill, he added.

Mr. Duterte on Wednesday evening met with Mr. Sotto, Speaker Alan Peter S. Cayetano and House Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez. Senator Christopher Lawrence T. Go, his former aide, was also present.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri, who sponsored the Ease of Doing Business Act, said the law is enough, adding that the government only needs to enforce it properly.

“The problem is it’s not being implemented properly and there have been little or no cases filed against erring government personnel in violation of the law,” he said in a separate statement.

Mr. Zubiri said the law allows the Anti-Red Tape Authority to initiate its own investigation and help file cases before the Office of the Ombudsman.

“The permit and licensing process at different government agencies will move more freely once more people are charged,” he said in Filipino. 

“Implement the law properly and don’t be afraid to file cases against them under the stiff penalties of the law,” he added.

Mr. Duterte at the same meeting said he wanted to abolish or privatize the graft-laden Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), Mr. Sotto said.

“He said he wanted PhilHealth abolished or privatized but I said it might be better to wait a few months and see how the new administration performs,” he added.

Mr. Sotto has filed a bill seeking to revamp the state insurance company. Under the measure, the Finance secretary will replace the Health chief as PhilHealth chairman. Mr. Duterte had agreed to his proposal, he added.

“I explained that PhilHealth is an insurance corporation and not a health entity,” he said.

Mr. Cayetano in a separate statement said lawmakers would continue to follow Mr. Duterte’s lead, adding that both houses of Congress have a good relationship with the presidential palace.

“There is no reason why we cannot do this now, and end red tape before the end of the President’s term in 2022,” he said.

“The President was very clear. The enemy in this time of pandemic is not just the virus, there is also the heartless bureaucracy that has made life unbearable for many of our kababayans,” the congressman said.

Decades of mismanagement have bred inefficiency, corruption and graft in a system that is meant to serve the public, he added.

Terry Ridon, a former congressman who now heads think tank InfraWatchPH, said red tape is very much alive “at the highest levels of government.”

He also said red tape has been a major stumbling block to the construction of new cell towers despite Mr. Duterte’s threat to take over telecommunication companies for their poor service.

Mr. Ridon blamed Congress for “selective red tape” in the grant of legislative franchises, citing ABS-CBN Corp.’s franchise denial as an example.

“We had seen sprint approvals of several franchise applications but publicly witnessed the foot-dragging in denying the ABS-CBN franchise,” he said.

“If there is a renewed call, government leaders should probably assess whether their leadership against red tape has failed, more than halfway into the President’s term,” he added.

Mr. Go earlier said the President was willing to participate in congressional hearings that will tackle red tape and corruption.

Mr. Ridon said the renewed call against red tape was probably aimed at appeasing industries and the international community, “which continue to raise governance issues such as red tape and corruption.”

The former lawmaker said the Duterte government should instead address the country’s economic problems, including the worsening jobless rate.

“What is important to the public today is the President’s crisis leadership against the coronavirus,” Mr. Ridon said.

“He needs to address a contracting economy and increasing unemployment. He needs to clamp down on out-of-step projects like the Manila Bay white sand project which has been beset by environmental, health and overpricing concerns,” he added.

The Philippines rose to 95th place from 124th in the World Bank’s Doing Business report released in October 2019.

Despite the improvement, Manila was seventh among 10 Southeast Asian economies, behind Singapore which ranked second overall, Malaysia at No. 12, Thailand at 21st, Brunei at 66th, Vietnam at 70th and Indonesia at 73rd.