New Philippine Congress flexes its muscles. Congress to debate Aquino's foreign policy, political appointments

The new Congress of the Philippines has wasted no time nibbling away at the powers of President Corazon Aquino, even before it officially begins work. Senate President Jovito Salonga has requested, three weeks before Congress opens, that his hand-picked Foreign Relations Committee review the United States-Philippines agreement on American military bases in the country.

In the House, Speaker Ramon Mitra plans to override an expected executive order on land reform by President Aquino with a measure he has already initiated.

The President, who retains legislative powers until Congress sits, plans to reveal her land reform action this week, according to close aides. On Saturday, she met with the nation's powerful Roman Catholic bishops to seek their support for her plan. No results were reported from that meeting.

The House measure, now being drafted by two congressmen, is to be rushed through the lower house within 30 days after Congress opens on July 27, the new speaker promises.

Although a close Aquino ally and former agriculture secretary, Mr. Mitra wants Congress to approve or disapprove all high-level officials appointed by Mrs. Aquino during the past 16 months. He threatens to block the salaries of those officials not willing to be reviewed.

Such ambitious actions by the restored Congress come even before all the winners in the legislative races have been proclaimed. Nearly two months after the May 11 elections of congressmen, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is still counting ballots and passing judgements on a number of contested races or ballot irregularities.

In the Senate, two of the 24 nationally elected seats remain unfilled. Juan Ponce Enrile, former defense chief and an Aquino opponent, is barely winning one of the slots, and anxiously awaits Comelec's official outcome.

Comelec, which under President Ferdinand Marcos was seen as heavily biased toward the regime, is now run by Aquino appointees who have been blamed for incompetency in running the election.

Mr. Salonga says Comelec's administrative capabilities must be improved before the Nov. 9 local elections or the post-Marcos ``re-democratization'' of the Philippines will be jeopardized.

Most of the new senators are former Cabinet members or high-level officials under Aquino. Writing new laws is less a priority than getting the executive branch to work and increasing public respect for present laws, admit many senators. In fact, much of their initial work will be to eliminate or rewrite Marcos-era laws.

Disrespect for government authority and public lawlessness - ranging from widespread tax evasion to police corruption - worry new congressmen. Many blame the 20-year rule of Mr. Marcos, who abolished Congress in 1972 under martial law.

``There must be a stop to the lawless enforcement of the law'' says Salonga, referring to bribe taking.

As Congress tests its powers against the President under the new Constitution, Aquino may be both concerned and relieved.

Although she would prefer a legislature that follows her policy lead, this reluctant ruler has been waiting to shed the near-dictatorial powers that have kept her the target of many interest groups.

Many senators, including Salonga, are eager to address the renewal of the US bases agreement, a controversial issue on which Aquino has remained neutral.

Under the Constitution, a new base treaty requires two-thirds Senate approval. US-Philippine talks to renew the pact, which runs to Sept. 16, 1991, start next year. Either nation, starting in 1990, can give one-year notice to end the arrangement. Otherwise, the pact continues past 1991. Congress could call for a referendum on whether to cancel the present agreement, then hold another referendum on a new treaty.

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