Scratch two days; seven session days to go.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday failed again to tackle the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill despite assurances given by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. to the bill’s authors that their sponsorship speeches will be allowed that day.
The FOI bill was on the official business of the House, and the sponsorship speeches of six lawmaker-authors had been lined up for the day.
That was supposedly until Davao del Sur Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas IV threatened to question the lack of quorum, if his motion was not heard.
Cagas, a two-term congressman who is running for governor of his province, had asked the House to stop sending to the congressional archive a law that President Aquino had signed creating the new province of Davao Occidental. The new province was formed with five towns carved out of Davao del Sur.
The FOI bill’s authors said they were completely surprised by Cagas’s motion.
“It was like an asteroid that fell from nowhere and hit us,” said Akbayan Party-list Rep. Walden Bello.
Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat said Cagas’s motion was totally “out of the radar” of the FOI bill’s authors.
But the FOI advocates were the most disappointed. When the session was suspended without any explanations given by the majority, about a hundred members of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition rose from their seats in the gallery and altogether made the thumbs-down sign for all the lawmakers to see. In silence for about five minutes, the Coalition members stood at the gallery flashing the thumbs-down sign at the lawmakers.
Rep. Cagas’s father Douglas is the incumbent governor of Davao del Sur. The young Cagas, a minority lawmaker affiliated with the Nacionalista Party, is running against his clan’s long-time rival Claude Bautista. The elder Cagas, meanwhile, is running for mayor of Digos City against re-electionist mayor Joseph Peñas. The Commission on Elections has declared Davao del Sur as an “area of concern.”
Rep.Cagas was one of 117 House members who signed in July 2012 a statement of commitment to pass the FOI bill, on initiative of Rep. Bello.
It was only last week, on Jan. 14, 2013, when President Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 10360 creating the province of Davao Occidental. The law’s signing was reported in the newspapers only this Tuesday.
But according to Rappler’s Miriam Grace Go, the bill’s proponents had initially asked that the law be submitted to a plebiscite in time for the May 2013 elections, but the Senate approved the bill only in October 2012.
The law that Aquino signed provides for a plebiscite to be conducted by the Comelec within 60 days from the effectivity of Davao Occidental’s charter, “or within two months from Feb. 5.” That date would fall right smack in the middle of the campaign period for the May 2013 elections.
The law provides, too, that “the first set of officials of the Province of Davao Occidental will be elected in the next national and local elections following the effectivity of this Charter,” Rappler reported.
Yet because the election period has commenced, the Comelec had decided to postpone the plebiscite for Davao Occidental and the election of a representative for the newly created congressional district of Cabanatuan City, to after May 2013.
Deputy Majority Leader Bolet Banal said that the House leaders have had to suspend Tuesday’s session at 5:20 p.m. because there was indeed no quorum at the House. The chamber thus failed to tackle the FOI bill even as he showed the day’s order of business with a list of six lawmakers scheduled to deliver sponsorship speeches.
Banal said he and his colleagues had counted at most 114 lawmakers present at the session hall and at the lawmakers’ lounge, or 30 short of the 144 required to achieve a quorum in the 287-member chamber.
Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tanada III said he and the other FOI bill authors tried to convince Cagas to drop his quorum call but Cagas would not budge. In fact, according to Tanada, Cagas had sad he would question the lack of a quorum again on Wednesday, if the House will not give in to his motion.
According to Tanada, the only way to get the FOI bill sponsored and tackled in plenary is to have a quorum on Wednesday.
Baguilat said it is, in fact, the obligation of all House members to attend all session days, and that perhaps Speaker Belmonte should now “authorize” or compel all House members to attend the next session days.
Interviewed by reporters, Tanada called Cagas’s concern “parochial.” Another lawmaker lamented Cagas’s quorum call ploy to push his motion on Davao Occidental a case of “a congressman holding the FOI hostage to a personal, political concern.”
But by all indications, Cagas’s problem – now also a problem for the FOI bill – may be less parochial than it is political. By all indications, too, it is bad politics with bad timing, courtesy no less of President Aquino, who signed the law creating Davao Occidental just as the election period had already started.
Meanwhile, Aquino has chosen to ignore calls for him to certify to the urgency of the FOI bill. He flies to Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday to attend the World Economic Forum saying zilch and doing nothing as yet to move the FOI bill into law in the last nine — now seven — session days before the 15th Congress adjourns on Feb. 8 for the May 2013 elections.