House panel to meet weekly to consolidate FOI bills

Angela Casauay

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House panel to meet weekly to consolidate FOI bills
In the past, the technical working group tackled only one or two provisions in its meetings, preventing authors from producing a consolidated version of the bill

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Benigno Aquino III may have snubbed the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in all his State of the Nation Address, but the measure has been included in Malacañang’s list of priority bills for the 2nd regular session of Congress

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr himself reiterated his commitment to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill during the opening of the 2nd regular session of Congress on Monday, July 28.

The FOI bill, however, remains stuck at the level of the technical working group (TWG) of the House committee on public information. With the recent endorsements, what is the committee doing to fast-track deliberations at the committee level? 

“We have set a TWG meeting once a week throughout August and September,” House public information committee chairman Jorge Almonte said in a text message. 

Deliberations in the TWG of the FOI bill have been moving at a snail’s pace, with some meetings only covering one or two provisions of the measure, preventing authors from producing a consolidated version a year after the 16th Congress opened in July 2013. 

Despite the slow pace of deliberations, Almonte has said he is “80% sure” that the FOI bill can be passed by 2016. 

In the 15th Congress, lawmakers failed to take up the bill on the floor after it hurdled the committee level. The Senate, meanwhile, passed its version of the FOI bill as early as March. 

Aside from making no mention of the FOI bill in his SONA, Aquino has refused to certify the bill as urgent since it is not, he said, an emergency. However, in other instances, he has given assurances an FOI bill will be passed under his term. (READ: Aquino and the framing of the FOI bill)

Since the 15th Congress, the Aquino administration has transmitted their proposed version of the FOI bill, which contains contentious provisions regarding matters of national security.  

Advocates of the bill launched an online signature campaign in May this year for its passage.

Support gains traction

Lawmakers who had not been as vocal in the past as champions of FOI in House of Representatives on Wednesday, July 30, expressed support for the passage of the bill.  

Deputy Speaker Giorgidi Aggabao said there is a big chance the FOI bill will pass this Congress with the endorsement of the Speaker. 

Aggabao, however, warned that other matters, such as the impeachment complaints against Aquino and the budget deliberations, could take up the time of the House. 

“The only kink I see would be the busy schedule of Congress. The budget hearing plus the impeachment complaints would surely occupy a good part of our time,” Aggabao said in a media release. 

Aggabao had earlier proposed the need to revisit the right of reply bill in the aftermath of reports revealing the names of lawmakers who allegedly benefitted from the pork barrel scam culled from the hard drive of star whistleblower Benhur Luy. Right of reply requires media outfits to air the side of the subjects of their reports. 

One of the champions of the FOI bill in the House, Parañaque City Representative Gus Tambunting, is more optimistic than his colleague.

“I thank the Speaker for his support for the FOI Bill in his opening speech. As a major proponent of this bill, I really hope we can make this a law before the end of the year,” said Tambunting.

Nueva Ecija 1st District Representative Estrellita Suansing, vice chairman of the House committee on women and gender equality, said the bill would help bring back public trust in government. 

Meanwhile, Party-list Representatives Jonathan dela Cruz (Abakada) and Samuel Pagdilao (ACT-CIS), vice chairman of the committee on public order and security, said it is about to pass a bill that will promote transparency and accountability.

Congress is reeling from public outcry over the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam, where hundreds of lawmakers were accused of plundering public funds by channeling them to fake non-governmental organizations. The executive branch, meanwhile, was recently rocked by the Supreme Court decision declaring parts of its controversial spending program as unconstitutional.

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