It is one thing for a piece of legislation to be defeated because of principled discourse, and yet another for it to be voted down because of mere technicalities. Acts such as the latter are to be frowned upon, as they represent the lowest a democratic society could get.
Yesterday House members of the 14th Congress (2007-2010) proved how low it could go, and eventually, they did not disappoint. Its last session was not even a real one. Some lawmakers did not care if the last session, a symbol of the kind of legacy the 14th Congress will leave its country, was adjourned because of a lack of a quorum.
During the roll call, representatives deliberately filed out of the session hall, loitering right outside as the proponents of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill clamored for a majority attendance. After promising the country that no efforts would be wasted, House Speaker Prospero Nograles could only allude to a line in a famous ‘80’s song. “I did my best, but I guess my best wasn’t good enough.”
Truly, the legislative journey was an adventure for the FOI bill, which aims to outline a clear, uniform process for accessing public documents in a government where access depends on the whims of government agencies and where executive privilege is king. Gone would have been the days when journalists and non-government entities would wait for months to receive requested documents. The law would have been a reason to kill the Ombudsman circular limiting access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Networks (SALNs) of government officials for journalistic, academic and judicial purposes. For 14 years, FOI advocates lobbied for a law clarifying the constitutional provision stated in the 1987 Constitution and it was in the 14th Congress that the bill got the farthest. All that was left to do was for the House of Representatives to ratify the bicameral committee report and for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to sign it into a law.
It was that close. In fact, Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello said weeks ago that ratifying the committee report should only take minutes for the House. All the debates have been accounted for in the combined versions of the House and the Senate. Yet Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo vehemently opposed the passage, saying that the bill “did not pass any debate.”
Apparently, it seems it was not Romualdo’s fault that he, the chairperson of the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, did not initiate such proper debate while the bill was on the floor for deliberation. He decided that the bill needed more discussion when it is already ready for ratification—as if over two years of legislative procedure is not enough.
If indeed thorough discussion of the FOI bill was lacking, it points to how terribly sluggish Congress can be. However, Romualdo does not see this and points his finger at the media. If the media wants access to information, which is sanctioned by the 1987 Constitution, Romualdo and the rest of the Right of Reply proponents want access to the media through equal space and airtime to the replies of government officials.
Never mind that the good congressman was changing the subject; but to dictate upon the press what it should and should not write is to spit on the hallowed tenets of free speech enshrined in the Constitution.
What a way to kill the bill: if all else fails, boycott Congress’s final session so proponents would have no choice but to file it again. The picture is laughable, whether Congress was conspiring to leave everyone hanging and continue the Arroyo administration’s legacy of secrecy, or if representatives were simply too lazy to walk the red carpet to the session hall. Either way, its actions speak louder than whatever song lyrics Nograles can unearth from his tired repertoire.
Because of the majority who ignored the last session, the 14th Congress has lost its last chance to redeem itself. It will be remembered as a Congress that favored government secrecy over transparency, filled with traditional politicians owing loyalty to a president submerged in accusations of corruption.
The 139 missing representatives have bastardized the democratic process as well as the very constituents they are supposed to represent. These representatives’ absence is a slap to the face of freedom-loving Filipinos everywhere being denied access to pertinent documents. Their absence at this very crucial vote has very clearly magnified the inefficiency of Congress, as well as its self-interested members. What could be running in the head of Congressman X, as he shuffled up and down that corridor in the Batasan, killing time, while the likes of Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III and Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante vainly tried to bring the FOI bill to the floor?
In July the 15th Congress will convene, but many familiar faces will still greet the cameras. Amid warnings that the Arroyo bloc would ceaselessly slow down the bill’s progress, it is now up to the new administration bloc in Congress and on the political will of the next president to protect and further this right sanctioned in the Constitution.
Presumptive president Benigno “Noynoy” C. Aquino III was one of the senators who approved the bill after all. He may have a mountain of inherited problems to hurdle, but the FOI bill should be among the top things in his agenda, if he is to prove his commitment to change and his advocacy of government transparency. We can only remain vigilant, and hope for the best.