Friday, June 4, 2010

Betrayal in the House

Betrayal in the House

No quorum kills freedom of info bill
By Leila Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:58:00 06/04/2010

MANILA, Philippines—The House of Representatives accomplished nothing on its last session day Friday, but claims of deceit, threats of arrest and declarations of outrage flew fast and furious.
Declared seven short of a quorum, the House adjourned without ratifying the freedom of information (FOI) bill—a landmark piece of legislation that would have lifted the shroud of secrecy over government transactions and data.
Ratification was to have been the last step before the nine-year-old bill is submitted to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for her signature.
The proponents of the bill tried vainly to save it, even invoking a House rule that allows the arrest of lawmakers. Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada and Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante were surprised at the lack of a quorum and said they were assured that 142 lawmakers were present before the roll was called.
Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño said the proceedings were “a disgrace” as well as “a fitting end to a Congress that, for the last three years, has zealously protected the President and her minions from being held accountable for their crimes against the people.”
An incensed Abante lashed out at Speaker Prospero Nograles for declaring a lack of a quorum, saying the session was a “a sad, painful day for all of us.”
Shouting at the top of his voice, Abante defended the FOI bill. He declared that if Congress was going to act that way, “I want out of this Congress!”
Nograles had insisted that only those in the session hall should be counted, and that without a quorum, the House could not transact business.
Tañada found Nograles’ statement suspicious, saying some of his colleagues were walking in and out of the session hall.
“It seems they deliberately called the roll when there was no quorum,” he said.
Romualdo’s objection
The FOI bill was the first measure read on the floor by Majority Floor Leader Arthur Defensor. But Lakas-Kampi stalwart, Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo, immediately objected.
Nograles suspended the session and lawmakers conferred with Romualdo.
When the session resumed, Romualdo stuck to his objection, saying he was questioning the quorum as a matter of principle.
He said that if lawmakers were interested in passing the bill, they would have attended the session. He complained that no debate even marked its passage.
“We want all transactions in the government to be very transparent. However, Mr. Speaker, it should be based on a law that was properly, legitimately, legally enacted,” Romualdo said.
He said Nograles had implored him “on bended knees” to reconsider his objection but that he refused.
The roll was called after Romualdo’s speech, and only 128 out of 268 lawmakers were recorded as present.
Cibac Rep. Joel Villanueva invoked Section 74 of the House rules allowing the chamber to compel the members’ attendance at the session and to close the session hall’s doors so that nobody would leave.
“We are the people’s representatives, Mr. Speaker. This is the House of the people... we can’t even do our job,” Villanueva said.
Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros seconded Villanueva’s call and pointed out that even Malacañang had called on Congress to pass the FOI bill.
Compostela Valley Rep. Manuel Zamora offered to help arrest his truant colleagues. But Nograles did not bite.
No questions
Villanueva contested Romualdo’s claim that there was no debate on the FOI bill, saying it would not have reached the plenary if this were true.
Abante said that when the bill was presented to the floor for interpellation, no one rose to question it.
He added: “This chamber has approved certain bills or measures without going through heated debates. It does not mean because a measure hasn’t been passed by scrutiny or debate, we have become undemocratic.”
Abante later told reporters that Nograles had prevailed on him to let the House leaders make the motion to ratify the FOI bill. He said this had assured him that the bill would be passed.
He said he was also asked to make a manifestation that the bill would have no retroactive effect.
In a statement he issued through his media officer after the adjournment, Nograles said: “I did my best. But I guess my best wasn’t good enough. I did not expect this to happen, especially because many of the authors were not present. The authors and coauthors would have been enough to sustain the quorum and we were not remiss in requesting their presence.”
But Malou Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said: “What we buried today is not the FOI act. It can still live because it can be refiled; it is a part of the democracy that we cherish. What we buried today is Speaker Nograles and the 14th Congress because they reneged on their duty.”
Powerful forces
The Senate passed a resolution early this week calling on the House to approve the FOI bill.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said he would sponsor the bill in the next Congress.
Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who chairs the Senate committee on public information and mass media and who authored the FOI version in the Senate, said the failure of the House to approve the measure was “a big disappointment and a big blow to graftbusters.”
“Some powerful forces are still out there to prevent a constitutional right,” said Cayetano, who added that he was committed to pass the same measure in the next Congress.
He also said the incoming administration could “issue an executive order directing the agencies to share information needed by any individual.”
Offering to society
In Malacañang, Press Undersecretary Rogelio Peyuan said lawmakers should refile the FOI bill in the next Congress.
“We hope that lawmakers may see the light when they open the 15th Congress. We expect that they will immediately attend to this bill once refiled because there’s nothing better we can offer society but the passage of the bill,” Peyuan said in a statement.
He added that contrary to reports, the Palace had been very supportive of the bill and its passage.
But according Bayan Muna’s Casiño, “it was obvious from the start that the House leadership and Malacañang frowned upon the FOI bill because they feared it would be used to hold them accountable for their corruption.”
The bill requires all government officials to make public all state records and their own statements of assets, liabilities and net worth, especially when the public interest demands it.
It is intended to promote transparency and good governance and to help the public make informed choices.

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