RH, FOI bills running out of time

Carmela Fonbuena
What the congressmen worked on other than #CoronaTrial

COMMITMENT: Speaker Belmonte says they will tackle FOI and RH bills when Congress resumes session in July

MANILA, Philippines – House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr has committed to tackle the Reproductive Health (RH) and Freedom of Information (FOI) bills when Congress resumes session in July.

For the RH bill, Belmonte said his target is it to put it to a vote. “Mapagbotohan man lang. That’s already a big step forward,” he told reporters recently.

For the FOI bill, which remains in the committee level, Belmonte said he already talked to the committee members to send the bill to the plenary.

Belmonte also included in his priority list pending the divorce bills. “I’m in favor of it. Biyudo naman ako,” he laughs. He then added: “It’s a very important social bill. We will give our best effort.”

Smaller window

But time is running out, admitted Majority Floor Leader Neptali Gonzales II. Congress is on a long break and won’t resume until July 23 for President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Gonzales said congressmen are “sensitive” about the RH bill, in particular. Members of the ruling Liberal Party themselves are split. Advocates of the bill admit they are not sure they have the votes to pass it.

The FOI bill is a bigger heartache for proponents like Quezon Rep Lorenzo Tañada III. “It should move at the same pace that the House made former Chief Justice Renato Corona accountable in our impeachment complaint,” he lamented.

The bill was nearly enacted in the previous 14th Congress. But in the last stage of the legislative process before it is transmitted to Malacañang for President Arroyo’s signature, the House of Representatives under former Speaker Prospero Nograles failed to deliver.

The Senate ratified the FOI bill then, but the lower House did not. It went back to Square One in the current 15th Congress.

“After the break, hayaan mo na magtampo sino ang magtatampo,” Gonzales said, referring to RH bill.

But for the two bills to have a chance, they have to be tackled before September. “It should happen in August. Otherwise, wala na talaga yan,” Gonzales said.

“When we resume, before the budget gets the attention of the floor. The moment pumasok ang budget, tabi na naman lahat iyan,” Gonzales said. (Once attention shifts to the budget, everything else will be set aside.)

Belmonte gave assurances that the May 2013 elections will not affect the performance of the House of Representatives. But, historically, attendance becomes a problem as elections near.

Corona trial

SMALL WINDOW: House majority floor leader Neptali Gonzales II admits there's a small window to pass RH and FOI bills

Gonzales admitted the impeachment trial affected the congressmen’s legislative performance. Although only 14 members of the chamber were officially involved in the trial, the other members followed the proceedings.

“We have to admit kahit paano, medyo nakabawas din ang impeachment trial doon sa days that we have to devote to the bills,” he said. He said the House failed to convene when Ombudsman Conchita Morales and former Chief Justice Renato Corona took the witness stand, for example.

But it’s worth it, he argued. “Kung di natin gagamitin ang provisions ng Constitution on accountability of impeachable officers, we might as well forget about accountability,” he said.

Under the 1987 Constitution, only the House of Representatives may initiate the removal of impeachable officers. The Senate, on the other hand, has the exclusive task of trying impeached officers.

Political will

Despite the impeachment trial, the House of Representatives was able to pass 119 bills on 3rd or final reading. A total of 91 bills were passed after Corona was impeached on Dec 12, 2011.

Among the bills the House passed is the controversial “Sin Tax” measure, which restructures the excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products. If enacted into law, the measure is expected to result in P33-B to P45-B in additional revenues for government. It is meant for President Aquino’s universal healthcare program. 

The Department of Finance, since the administration of President Arroyo, had long lobbied Congress to pass the sin tax measure. The bill’s proponents credited the bill’s passage in the House to President Aquino’s show of “political will.”

The representatives of tobacco-growing provinces — the political bloc Northern Alliance — had long fought against the measure. Last week, during interpellations, La Union Rep Victor Ortega tried a last-minute attempt to dilute the bill but was defeated.

Gonzales said he hopes the Senate can adopt the House version of the bill and not further dilute it. Cavite Rep. Joseph Emilio Abaya told Rappler he is hoping the Senate can even strengthen the measure.

Ready for PNoy’s signature

POLITICAL WILL: Languishing in Congress for over a decade, the sin tax measure finally passes lower House

Congress also ratified 5 bills before it adjourned sine die on Wednesday, June 6. They are now ready for President Aquino’s signature.

  1. Amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA). The bill seeks to strengthen the AMLA and make it compliant with updated and revised international anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist standards.
  2. Amendments to Republic Act 9729, the Climate Change Act of 2009, which allocates a P1-B annual appropriation for the “People’s Survival Fund” and the Climate Change Commission
  3. The Data Privacy Act, which creates the National Privacy Commission under the Department of Transportation and Communications. It penalizes malicious and unauthorized disclosure of personal information.
  4. Strengthening and Propagating Foster Care for Abandoned and Neglected Children with special needs
  5. Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012

Hesitating on their SALNs

However, the House leadership is being criticized for refusing to release congressmen’s Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN). Corona was convicted for failing to accurately declare his assets in his SALN.

Belmonte said he created a committee to discuss with congressmen the release of their SALNs. He said the committee should file its reports when session resumes.

Until then, Belmonte said requests for SALNs should be addressed to the individual congressmen. Belmonte and Gonzales themselves are yet to release their SALNs.

Local elections in the Philippines have shown various forms of black propaganda campaigns and violence that are not seen on the national stage. Some congressmen expressed concern their rivals would use information in their SALNs against them.

Some members of the House prosecution team have released their SALNs. They are prosecutors Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao of Akbayan party list and Neri Colmenares of Bayan Muna party List.

All three spokespersons — Marikina Rep Romero “Miro” Quimbo, Quezon Rep Lorenzo “Erin” Tanada III, and Aurora Rep Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara—have released their SALNs, too. – Rappler.com

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