By Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral

THE CORE committee of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) has endorsed 13 bills — including a tariff on rice imports to replace the quota system — as legislative measures needing the certification by President Rodrigo R. Duterte as “urgent” such that they should be passed in the next five months.

The LEDAC Executive Committee’s (LEDAC-ExCom) list was an outcome of its meeting Thursday last week, July 13, its first under the Duterte administration.

In a statement issued by his office on Sunday, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia said the list of bills will be endorsed to the LEDAC in its next meeting for adoption as well as for approval and certification by the President as urgent.

“[By identifying the bills as urgent,] we mean that we would want them passed into law possibly within the year,” said Mr. Pernia, who chaired the LEDAC-ExCom meeting last week.

The body agreed to endorse the following measures:

• Unified National Identification System Act

• Security of Tenure Bill (End of “Endo” or Contractualization)

• Utilization of the Coconut Levy Fund

• National Transport Act to address transport traffic crisis

• Budget Reform Act

• National Land Use Act

• Rightsizing of the National Government

• Amendments to the Anti-Cybercrime Act

• Amendments to the Agricultural Tariffication Act of 1996

• Amendments to the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) Charter to allow for free irrigation

• Amendment to Public Service Act

• Ease of Doing Business Act/Fast Business Permit Act

• Government Procurement Reform Act Amendments

Aside from the 13 bills, the LEDAC-ExCom also “strongly endorsed” the passage of the tax reform bill, which was passed on final reading by the House of Representatives just before Congress adjourned the first regular session after getting a nudge from Mr. Duterte.

“The 14 bills are part of the 28 measures included in the proposed Common Legislative Agenda (CLA) reviewed and vetted by the LEDAC Secretariat, for final approval of the Council,” the statement said.

“The CLA consists of measures which were prioritized based on the President’s Legislative Agenda (PLA) and the Common Legislative Priorities of Congress (CLPC),” it added.

LEDAC is a 20-member advisory body formed under Republic Act No. 7640 during the administration of former president Fidel V. Ramos, who held its first meeting on May 19, 1993, a year into his term.

After a five-year lull, the young Duterte administration revived the LEDAC with the council meeting last Jan. 30, setting the stage for close consultation between the legislative and executive on reform priorities, as well as for inclusion of the judiciary branch.

Meanwhile, the LEDAC ExCom is only composed of the leaders of both chambers of Congress, the Executive Secretary, the Socioeconomic Planning Secretary, and the Presidential Legislative Adviser. It convenes as often as may be necessary.

In the same statement on Sunday, Mr. Pernia stressed anew the need to immediately amend the Agricultural Tariffication Act of 1996 after the country’s quantitative restriction (QR) on rice granted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) expired last June.

“This is to prevent uncertainty as to what the demands of WTO members will be following the lapse of the QR,” Mr. Pernia said.

Last week, Mr. Pernia told reporters that the economic team will likely pitch its plan to certify as urgent the bill on lifting the QR on rice to Mr. Duterte before his second State of the Nation Address (SoNA) on July 24.

“So we don’t have to go through this complicated process of extending trade concessions to countries or members of WTO that might do something in exchange for our delay in tariffication,” Mr. Pernia, who also co-chairs the Committee on Tariff and Related Matters, had said on Monday last week.

The QR is a non-tariff measure imposed by a member of the WTO to limit the volume of imports of a particular commodity over a particular period. The regime expired last month.

The country was allowed to impose temporary QRs on rice after the government was permitted “special treatment” for the staple grain upon acceding to the WTO in 1995. The special treatment was extended up to June 30 this year through a waiver.

During the negotiations for the second extension, which was granted in 2014, the Philippines had agreed to, among others, increase the Minimum Access Volume (MAV) to 805,200 metric tons and reduce the in-quota tariff to 35% corresponding to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Trade in Goods Agreement duty and a most-favored nation (MFN) rate of 40% for volumes imported outside the MAV.

Through this arrangement, the Philippines was given more time to achieve self-sufficiency in rice, a move expected to counter the damaging impact of the expected influx of cheap rice imports after the QR is scrapped.

As the QR neared its expiration, Mr. Duterte signed Executive Order No. 23 in April extending the “effectivity” of MFN, MAV and “other Philippine commitments” relating to the waiver granted by WTO on the special treatment of rice.

Meanwhile, the amendments to Republic Act 8178 or the Tariffication Act of 1996 is still pending ratification in both chambers of Congress.

Sought for comment, the Office of the Cabinet Secretary who sits as a member of the grains regulator National Food Authority (NFA) council, said Mr. Duterte signed EO No. 23 to “show the other governments in WTO that we have an enabling policy” and to “protect” local farmers from the adverse impact of the QR’s expiration.

“We still have to work out the protection of our rice farmers because baka di sila maka-compete dito sa (they might not be able to stand competition with) more affordable rice imports,” Jonas George S. Soriano, assistant secretary at the Office of the Cabinet Secretary, said in a telephone interview.

“So kailangan muna i-extend na magkaroon ng mga tariff… So ‘yun so far ang napapag-usapan sa Cabinet (So there’s a need to extend or impose the tariff… that’s what’s being discussed at the Cabinet so far),” he added.

“We need to be fair [to other WTO members]. We want to join also the community of nations but we also have to protect our farmers until such time we can actually compete with the world market.”

The National Economic and Development Authority said that introducing competition in the domestic market through the tariffication scheme would encourage farmers to work towards self-sufficiency.

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III said earlier that he is considering proposing a seasonal tariff for rice, with low tariff rates during the lean months and higher rates during harvest season — but Mr. Pernia had said this scheme has yet to be reviewed by the economic team.