28 January 2013

THE Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill is on the throes of death.

With just six session days left before the House of Representatives adjourns for the May 2013 election campaign, one and only one miracle could save it from certain perdition — a certification on the urgency of its immediate enactment by President Aquino himself.

It should not have reached the ICU, if only the House did something more than nothing on the FOI bill during its three session days last week.

On Session Day 1, the House did not even enrol the bill in its order of business, even as it had been in the Order of Business for reference to the Rules Committee on Dec. 18, 2012 yet. On Days 2 and 3, just when the Bill had already been calendared for sponsorship and plenary debate, a legislator threatened to question the quorum for a motion too parochial and self-serving, and kept the entire House hostage to his whim.

Yet still, the House leaders allowed three privilege speeches, and over an hour of interpellation for one, on Day 3. The legislator and the House leaders did not allow even a single minute of discussion on the FOI bill.

Last week’s events point to a House conspiracy to kill the bill led no less by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, and with the many habitual absentees of the House in cameo role.

After opening the session and immediately leaving the presiding chores to a Deputy Speaker on Day 1, Belmonte was not to be seen again on the floor last week. The same goes for his Majority Leader, who showed up for just a few minutes on Day 3. That was as far as they went to demonstrate their leadership of a chamber turned totally inept to take action on the FOI bill by a legislator on tantrum mode.

In recent weeks, Belmonte and Gonzales had assured that they wanted the plenary debate on the FOI bill to proceed posthaste. For a minute, the broad coalition of FOI advocates and authors had thought the duo had stopped their dribble drivel on the bill.

Last week’s events, however, made it all plain to everyone: after the drivel comes now a plot to murder the bill in the House through sheer ineptitude and deliberate delaying actions of its leaders, the chronic absenteeism of majority of its members, and the resort to absurd tantrum ploys of one legislator.

We smell the stench of death in progress for the FOI bill. We see a rerun of the farce on the FOI bill that was staged by the 14th Congress under Speaker Prospero Nograles Jr. It’s all the same save for one twist — Belmonte’s 15th seems more duplicitous. It declares full lip-service commitment for FOI but also employs full-throttle theatrics to prevent the bill’s passage.

That Belmonte’s House has failed the people on the FOI bill is an indisputable fact.

For one, the legislator in tantrum allowed other matters to be discussed by the House last Tuesday and Wednesday but it was only when the FOI bill was about to be taken up did he insist on his quorum question.

For another, the all-powerful Rules Committee led by Gonzales is not exactly helpless to act on matters of agenda. It did not intervene for the FOI bill.

For a third, that the House could not achieve a quorum is not a problem that citizens should have to deal with — lawmakers are precisely paid handsome fees, on top of fat slabs of pork money, to legislate. Their minimum obligation is to attend all sessions, without fail. Belmonte and Gonzales have the command responsibility to see to this.

For a fourth, Belmonte and Gonzales could have declared the FOI bill urgent pursuant to Rule X, Section 52, of the House Rules, thereby paving the way for the adoption of a timetable for debate and voting on FOI.

Finally and most important of all, Belmonte and Gonzales could have prevented the deliberate delays on the consideration of the bill by Rep. Ben Evardone at the committee level, which got the FOI bill in its code blue condition in the first place.

Fact is, as Evardone hemmed and hawed, legislators in favor of the FOI bill launched an initiative to use Rule IX, Section 37, Par. 1 of the House Rules allowing 1/4 of the members of a committee to call a hearing.

But presented with the notice of hearing signed by more than the eight Committee members needed to put the rule in effect, Belmonte prevailed upon the group to allow Evardone to call the hearing instead, allowing Evardone to further delay committee action.

With three session days wasted and only six more to go, the last remaining trigger for the House to finally act on the bill is a certification from President Aquino on the urgency of its immediate enactment.

Three years ago as a candidate for president, Aquino had promised to support the FOI bill and accord its passage top priority. Now President and also chairman of the ruling Liberal Party coalition in the House, he has both power and duty to fulfil his promise and to do his part to save a bill that will enable the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people to information, and to transparency and accountability in government.

Malacañang also loses from the inaction of Speaker Belmonte and Majority Leader Gonzales. They have ignored the position of Malacanang–its inputs and amendments, and its call to have plenary debates. Such defiance by the Speaker and the House Majority Leader, without Malacañang countering it, can be interpreted as a political defeat for all FOI advocates, including Malacañang.

Today, the people will march again to Mendiola to lay at the doorstep of President Aquino the FOI bill, limp and nearly lifeless. Save it, the President can. Kill it, the President can, too. In the name of the Constitution, the people, and daang matuwid, the correct choice is clear: Certify the FOI bill as urgent!