“Only a miracle can save the FOI now.”
So said champions of the long-delayed Freedom of Information (FOI) bill as the House of Representatives again failed on Wednesday to tackle the measure on the floor.
Legislators supporting the FOI have been waiting for three days for a chance to sponsor the bill on the floor, as the House calendar counts down to the election recess. The chamber adjourns on February 8 for an extended election break, leaving only six more days for FOI proponents to make a fast break.
However, Wednesday’s session went down the drain as well after the House leadership failed to mollify Davao del Sur Rep Marc Douglas Cagas IV. Cagas has been threatening to raise the absence of a quorum since Tuesday in order to block the sending of a newly signed law creating the province of Davao Occidental to the House archives. Douglas, one of the original proponents of the law, has now become its oppositor.
Unfortunately, the FOI bill has become an indirect victim of Cagas’ crusade against the Davao Occidental law. Tuesday’s session was also aborted by Cagas’ threats to question the lack of quorum.
An hour into Wednesday’s session, Cagas took to the floor to raise a question as to “whether there were enough warm bodies” in the chamber. House leaders took this to mean that Cagas was again threatening to raise the lack of quorum in the chamber, as there were less than 50 Congressmen present. Majority Floor leader Neptali Gonzales II rushed to talk to Cagas as the session was suspended.
When session resumed, Cagas appeared to have been mollified at first. Cagas again took the floor, saying he had already conferred with the Majority Floor Leader, and that they had come to an agreement. Cagas however again gave broad hints that there was no quorum in the chamber.
“After conferring with the Majority Leader, although his body is not that warm to warm all of us here, I agree with his (suggestion.)” Cagas said.
However, after a few more speeches by legislators on local concerns, FOI advocates watching from the gallery were surprised when the session was adjourned until Monday the following week.
Rep. Teddy Baguilat and Walden Bello, both champions of the FOI, said Cagas had refused to back down. In his discussion with Gonzalez, Cagas only agreed to allow local concerns to be taken up by the chamber. However, the legislator threatened to question the lack of quorum if any other measure was taken up by Congress during the session, including the FOI.
House Committee on Public Information chairman Ben Evardone, who was set to deliver the sponsorship speech for the FOI bill, said Cagas was apparently offended by media reports that blamed him for the failure of the chamber to tackle the FOI the day before. Media had quoted pro-FOI legislators as saying on Tuesday that they were blindsided by Cagas’ “parochial” concerns.
In addition, the Cagas patriarch, Davao Sur Governor Douglas Cagas, had himself attended the session to make sure that his son blocks any move to bring the Davao Occidental law to the congressional archive.
Curiously, Baguilat said, Cagas told FOI proponents that they could begin discussion of the measure on Monday, Jan. 28, as he would not be attending the session on that day.
Baguilat and Bello were stumped by this turn of events, as both were already expecting a tight race for the FOI when Congress resumed session last Jan. 22. With the new developments and the three day delay, Baguilat said only a miracle would save the FOI in the 15th Congress.
Barring a miracle, the only other thing that could save the FOI, Baguilat said, would be a certification from Malacanang that the FOI is an urgent measure. However, given the lukewarm support of the Palace to the measure, Baguilat said that a Presidential endorsement would also be a miraculous event in itself.
Bello for his part said it was also unfortunate that Congress could not muster a quorum for the last two days, leaving the chamber hostage to Cagas’ threats. If all the Congressmen had only attended the session as they were supposed to, Bello said, Cagas would not have any ammunition with which to block measures on the floor.
There were less than 30 Congressmen present on the floor when the session began at 4 p.m. Wednesday. By the time the session adjourned at around 6 p.m. there were less than 50 present.
Interestingly, opponents of the FOI had earlier delayed the bill at the committee level by insisting that the committee stop hearings on the bill at 4 p.m. sharp because of a rule that requires all Congressmen to attend sessions.
Right to Know Right Now! lead convenor Nepomuceno Malaluan said the FOI advocates were extremely disappointed with the unnecessary delays in the passage of the bill. Malaluan said that advocates were hoping to the last minute that Congress would deliver on its promise to pass the measure before going on a break. With the delayed timetable, Malaluan said proponents were now preparing for the eventuality of another campaign, this time with the 16th Congress in mind.
Malaluan also expressed disappointment with the failure of President Benigno S. Aquino III to make a firmer stand on the FOI despite his earlier assurances of support for the bill.