Malaluan is trustee of Action for Economic Reforms and Spokesperson of the Right to Know. Right Now! Campaign; Lumba is Professor at the UP College of Law and Legal Clinic Coordinator, Institute for Freedom of Information.

Today (May 24, 2010) the House convenes to adopt the resolution to hold a joint session for the presidential and vice presidential canvass. It remains to be seen whether this will be the only matter in the Order of Business, or whether other matters will be taken up.

In any case, it will be in order to consider the Conference Committee Report on the Freedom of Information Act, even ahead of the consideration of the resolution to hold a joint session. This finds support under Rule X, Section 61 of the House Rules, which reads in part: “The consideration of conference committee reports shall always be in order, except when the Journal is being read, while the roll is being called, or the House is dividing on any question.

“This is virtually the same as Rule XII, Section 7(a) of the Rules of the 111th Congress of the United States House of Representatives. To quote: “The presentation of a conference report shall be in order at any time except during a reading of the Journal or the conduct of a record vote, a vote by division, or a quorum call.”

The reason why a conference report “shall be in order at any time” is explained in Section 246 of Reed’s Manual of General Parliamentary Law, as follows:

A conference report has precedence over any other business, because, being the procedure by which a final agreement is reached between the two Houses, the assent of both, which is essential to legislate on it, must be further advanced than any subject under debate. The courtesy, also, between the two bodies requires that precedence should be given to joint business. Accordingly, in the United States House the conference report is privileged, even against a motion to adjourn, and may be made at any time except while the journal is being read, the roll called, or the House dividing. This is but a declaration of general parliamentary law, except the privilege given as against a motion to adjourn.

Being always in order, it follows that the consideration/ratification of the Conference Report on FOI Act cannot be deferred.

On the practical side, deferring its consideration/ratification means killing the FOI Act.  There is clear indication that the House leadership does not want to take up the Conference Report today because it has no intention to pass it in the first place.

Ordinarily, Conference Committee Reports are introduced for consideration by the Floor Leader, under the direction of the Speaker. They had the opportunity to do this for the FOI Act on both February 2 and 3 before Congress adjourned.

In fact, on February 3, before the stalemate on the floor over the oath-taking of Celestino Martinez III, election protest winner over sitting Rep. Benhur Salimbangon of Cebu, the Floor Leader (Rep. Garin), after moving to defer the calling of the roll, proceeded to introduce the adoption of or concurrence with no less than 15 Senate Bills, and the ratification of one conference committee report. The Conference Committee Report on the FOI Act was conveniently omitted, and the Filipino people betrayed.

In addition to the events of February 2 and 3, a Manila Bulletin story on May 17 reports that Speaker Nograles “believes that the session could not be used to approve pending measures because the only thing Congress is mandated to do is to canvass votes and declare the next President and Vice President.”

One possible argument in support of this position by the Speaker is that the consideration of the conference report will delay the urgent matter of canvassing. This is not correct. The consideration of the FOI conference report will by no means hold up or delay the other agenda of canvassing. The ratification is not subject to debate; only to voting. It will not take five minutes to put the motion to ratify, and for the voting to proceed. The adoption of the resolution to hold a joint session for the presidential and vice presidential canvass can then immediately follow. Also, as far as we are informed, the joint session will start on May 25 yet.

As the Right to Know. Right Now! Campaign states, by ratifying the FOI Act on May 24, and then, jointly with the Senate, commencing on May 25 an orderly and transparent canvass of votes, the House of Representatives will have given the Filipino people the gift of a credible transition of leadership, and the empowering right of access to information.

We can only pray that the Speaker sees the light.

Failing in this, we count on FOI champions in the House, led by Representatives Erin Tañada, Joel Villanueva, Walden Bello, Riza Hontiveros, TG Guingona, Del De Guzman, Benny Abante, Ed Zialcita, Chona Gonzales, Satur Ocampo, Rufus Rodriguez, and Edno Joson, to stand up for our right to information in plenary session today. We call on principal author Juan Edgardo Angara, bicam committee delegates Boying Remulla, Rodante Marcoleta, and Rodolfo Antonino, the 181 listed authors of the House Bill, and the 197 members who voted in favor of the bill on third reading, not to abandon their legislative work at this critical juncture.

We invite everyone to join us at the Right to Know. Right Now! Campaign when we motorcade from UP to Batasan at noon today, to fight for our right to know.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”