THE 15th Congress must adopt, refile and pass with dispatch the version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that was aborted in the 14th Congress because of the feigned absence of a quorum on the last session day of the House of Representatives last June 4.
In a statement, the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition of over 160 civil society groups and leaders said, “the new senators and congressmen may do well not to repeat the processes so they can save valuable time and even more valuable taxpayers’ money.”
The Senate had ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the FOI but the House not only failed to act but even thwarted the bill’s passage.
Pending action on the bill in the 15th Congress,, the Coalition called on the government of President Benigno C. Aquino III to “translate its commitment to transparency into clear policies and concrete action” and promptly convey to Congress his unequivocal support for the immediate passage of the bill.
The Coalition said the President might consider enrolling his support for the FOI bill in his first State of the Nation Address on July 23, as well as through an appropriate message to Congress certifying the necessity of its immediate enactment.
Yet even without an FOI law, the Coalition said President Aquino and his appointees could on their own “promulgate and observe active disclosure policies in their decisions and transactions, notably appointments, contracts, executive agreements, borrowing, and spending.”
Additionally, the Coalition exhorted the new House of Representatives to “introduce amendments to its Rules and changes in its practice, to prevent a repeat of capricious acts by the leaders of the 14th Congress that undermine not only the due performance of its legislative duty but also the integrity of the institution.”
The House, the Coalition noted, “must stop the practice of dispensing with the roll call at the start of session to railroad measures without quorum.”
The Coalition stressed that “attendance in sessions, an important obligation to state and people by every member of Congress, can only be enforced if quorum is strictly observed before session can proceed.”
On session days when a quorum is not present amid urgent business matters on the agenda, the Coalition said, “Congress must exercise its right to compel the attendance of absent members. In terms of the determination of quorum, the Rules must be amended to provide an effective check on the Secretary General’s determination of the result of a roll call.”
“The Rules on the consideration of conference reports must be strengthened to give effect to its high privilege in the order of business, and avoid the arbitrary and unjust blocking of an important measure by the House leadership as happened in the FOI bill conference report,” the Coalition said.
Last June 4, the last session day of the 14th Congress, House Secretary General Marilyn B. Yap declared that only 128 members were present – or seven short of the 135 required to constitute a quorum – at the close of a roll call prompted by a quorum question from Lakas-Kampi ally of then Speaker Prospero Nograles.
A motion was made for the present members to compel the attendance of the absent members, as provided by Section 74 of the House Rules but Nograles simply scoffed at the motion.
After Nograles released the list of House members who were supposedly absent on June 4, at least nine congressmen later came forward and were established on video footage to have been actually present at the session hall during the roll call.
They include Representatives Neptali Gonzales II, Roilo Golez, Michael John “Jack” Duavit, Mujiv Hataman, Arthur Pingoy, Magtanggol Gunigundo, Jovito Palparan, Pablo P. Garcia, and Oscar Malapitan.
According to the Coalition, “by all accounts, the number of House members present at the June 4 session was more than the required number to constitute quorum and the Freedom of Information Act could have been ratified that same day.”
The Coalition vowed to continue its effort to establish “which House leaders and Secretariat personnel must be held accountable for the events of June 4.”
At the same time, the Coalition said, “we must also chart the immediate next steps to move the Freedom of Information Act forward” and in the relentless campaign to pass the FOI. “we call on the members of the 15th Congress, both from the Senate and the House, and the Executive, to commit themselves to support it,”
The first step, the Coalition said, is for members of the new Congress to adopt, refile and pass the version of the bill that had been approved by the 14th Congress’s bicameral conference committee . This version is “as progressive and as reasonable as a Freedom of Information Act could get.”
“It provides a standard and definite procedure for dealing with requests for information. It clearly defines a narrow list of exceptions, carefully balancing the public interest in broad disclosure with the public interest in keeping certain information secret. It secures for citizens concurrent remedies in cases of denial of access to information,” the Coalition said.
Moreover, “it provides implementing mechanics for the public disclosure of a list of important government transactions, without need of request from anyone. It provides criminal and administrative sanctions for violation of the right to information.”
Just as well, the bicameral conference committee version “introduces numerous mechanisms for the active promotion of openness in government. All these directly address the operational gaps that have made the Constitutional right to information and the state policy of full disclosure of government transactions involving public interest, extremely difficult to enforce in practice. “ – PCIJ, July 2010