Text blast vs FOI

A DAY before the Freedom of Information Act was supposed to be taken up at the House of Representatives, Speaker Prospero Nograles told media that text messages and phone calls were being made to ensure that House members would attend Friday’s session for the ratification of the FOI bill.

“We are doing text brigades, we are calling them, we are reminding them to attend the last session all because we want the Freedom of Information to pass,” Nograles told reporters.

The night before, however, a different text message was received by journalists and FOI advocates. Reportedly forwarded by a lawmaker “sympathetic” to the FOI bill, it urged House members not to attend the session.

The message read in part: “In view of the possible adverse impact of the pending Freedom of Information bill on the performance of the basic tasks of the government and the reported big rally of leftist groups at the House of Rep. to coerce congressmen to support said controversial bill, you may wish to join the many congressmen of various political parties who have decided not to attend the last session of the House…”

By that day’s end, the bill was dead – an event foreseen by several lawmakers.

Gagawin nilang lahat ng puwedeng gawin (They will do everything they can),” Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) party-list Rep. Joel Villanueva told 12 other lawmakers who attended a June 2 caucus at a Quezon City restaurant to strategize on how to get the bill ratified.

According to Villanueva, it was possible that the House leadership would even  “sacrifice” other measures that were already included in the Congress’s last-day agenda just so it could block the bill.

Walang ipapasa kahit ano (No measure will be passed),” Villanueva told his colleagues.

His prediction came true A copy of the June 4 House agenda obtained by the PCIJ shows that eight other measures died alongside the FOI  bill last Friday because of a supposed lack of quorum.

Among these were counterpart bills from the Senate awaiting adoption from the House:  (1) S.B. 3206 or the Philippine Tax Academy authored by Sen. Panfilo Lacson; (2) S.B. 2020 or the Special Education Act of 2008 introduced by Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago; and (3) S.B. 3571 or the Anti-Racial and Religious Discrimination Act filed by senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Manuel Villar, Ma. Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal, and Pilar Juliana ‘Pia’ Cayetano.

Another three bills needed concurrence from the House after these were amended by the Senate: (1) H.B. 7046 which proposes the conversion of the Quirino State College into a state university filed by Reps. Junie Cua, Cynthia Villar, Exequiel Javier, Jesus Crispin Remulla, Mariano Piamonte, and Cinchona Cruz-Gonzales; (2) H.B. 4361 or the proposed creation of the Bicol State College of Applied Sciences and Technology filed by Reps. Luis Villafuerte, Liza Maza, Luzviminda Ilagan, Ana Theresia Hontiveros, Danilo Ramon Fernandez, Florencio Garay, Guillermo Romarate Jr, Glenda Ecleo, Satur Ocampo, and Arnulfo Go and (3) House Bill 3675 which proposes the creation of the Balanga City National Technical Vocational High School filed by Reps. Cua, Albert Garcia, and Del de Guzman.

Two more measures, which like the FOI bill had bicameral conference committee reports, needed ratification from the House. These were the proposed act on prohibiting and penalizing the pilferage and theft and unauthorized use, interconnection or reception of any signal or service offered over a cable TV or cable Internet system under H.B. 1409 and S.B. 3530; and the proposed Philippine Immigration Act of 2009 under H.B. 6568 and S.B. 3404.

It was Camiguin Rep. Pedro Romualdo of the Lakas-Kampi-CMD party — who had once defended the First Couple in their August 2009 lavish $20,000-dinner at Le Cirque restraurant in New York — who questioned the quorum and raised the issue on retroactivity before Nograles banged the gavel and declared the session adjourned.

Based on the House secretariat’s count, only 128 lawmakers attended the June 4 session. But at least an hour before the attendance was checked, Villanueva said lawmakers at the plenary had already reached 137, which was more than enough to muster a quorum of 135.

At the June 2 lawmakers’ caucus, those in attendance had pointed to the matter of having a quorum as a vulnerable point. Observed Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara of the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino party: “The quorum is a parliamentary tool. It can be used to pass the bill or kill it.”

“I think that the leadership is already talking about this,” said Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante, chairman of the House Committee on Public Information and one of the lead authors of the FOI bill.  “I feel that they will question the quorum.”

Abante, regional director of the administration party Lakas-Kampi-CMD, also said during the caucus that he felt that he was being left cluessless by Nograles. This was strange, he added, because the Speaker, who is his party-mate, had never done so before.

“In the past kasi Nogi (Nograles) and Art (Majority Leader Arthur Defensor) would call me everytime there was a problem,” said Abante. “But I was kept blind on this (the FOI bill issue) now.” – PCIJ, June 2010