COMMENT: Another Extension Puzzles

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, December 18, 2014 – The House of Representatives has reset again its timeline to pass its version (HB 4994) of the Bangsamoro Basic Law to March 2015 — in the “early” part of March “with optimism”, the Philippine News Agency (December 11, 2014) cited “solons”; by the “end” of March “we hope”, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (December 15, 2014) quoted Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Bangsamoro Basic Law.

This is the second extension – the first from “we’ll-try-our-best” self-imposed deadline of December 17, 2014 to February 27, 2015. The puzzle: Will there be more extensions? The clues are enigmatic. The implications on Bangsamoro are worrisome.

Unrealistic Deadlines

Don’t blame the Congress. The AHCBBL has been doing a tremendous job. The demands to enact the BBL to “not only be acceptable to the people but also to the Supreme Courtare too much to be crammed in a short timeline which the Committee and the House leadership must have to set for political expedience. The extensions are apt consequences of unrealistic deadlines.

Originally, the AHCBBL held hearings from September 24 through the recess ending October 19 (22 working days including Saturdays) and set to prepare its report during the short October 21-31 session (nine working session days) for submission to the plenary session of the House from November 17 to December 19 – hence, the December 17, 2014 self-imposed deadline to pass the BBL House version. How could it accomplish 32 hearings nationwide in 22 days and finish its report in nine days?

In the first timeline extension, the Committee was to end the hearings on December 17 (56 working days), set January 19 to 31 (10 working session days) to do its report and targeted February 2, 2015 to submit its report to start the plenary deliberations of the BBL and pass it by February 27. Will ten days be enough to finish deliberations on the voluminous inputs from 32 hearings in 56 days?

In the PDI and PNA reports above, the hearings and consultations cannot be finished on the new December 17 deadline; they will be extended to January 16 and 17, 2015 without any assurance of finality.

The second to the last regular session of the 16th Congress is January 19 to March 20, 2015. Rodriguez (Inquirer) is hoping his committee would be able to submit its report for plenary debates in March, stating, “We will have about three weeks of plenary debates. We hope to finish this by March 30.”

Timeline Implications

Take note of the second timeline extension. The AHCBBL has January 19 to February 28, 2015 (30 working session days) to finish its report, granting that the hearings finally end on January 17, and March 1 to 20 (15 working session days) for the plenary to pass HB 4994. The implications are not very comforting.

First, should the hearings extend beyond January 17 the timeline for the Committee deliberations on its voluminous and contentious inputs will be shortened. From the reports, it is evident that the constitutional issues are most contentious among the many.

With many provisions needing careful study to make the BBL “acceptable to the people and the Supreme Court”, the final form of the BBL cannot be determined until all the consultations are finished (PNA).

Second, the timelines for the Committee deliberations and the plenary debates to pass HB 4994 appear disproportionate. However, on the premise that the AHCBBL report has been well deliberated, the Speaker can cut plenary debates and call for a vote within 15 days; the House has the number to pass HB 4994. But this can invite complaints before the Supreme Court.

Third, passing HB 4994 by March 20, 2015 is only one third of the legislative and legal processes. The second third is the passing by the Senate of its BBL version, SB 2408; the reconciling of the two versions by the Bicameral Conference Committee; the approval of the BBL by both Houses of the Congress and its signing by the President. The last third is the plebiscite to ratify the BBL and its promulgation.

If the House version is passed by March 20, the first third will have taken six months to accomplish. The last third is fixed by the Constitution – from 90 to 120 days or three to four months after the signing of the BBL into law. The second third will greatly depend on how long it would take the Senate to pass SB 2408.

Because of the May 2016 presidential election, the Commission on Elections set an imperative: The BBL plebiscite must be held before October 2015 so that it will not complicate the preparations for the May 2016 election. This calls for the signing of the BBL by June 15 – just after the adjournment sine die of the Second Regular Sessions on June 11 – so that the plebiscite can be held in the last half of September 2015.

If the House completes the first third by March 20, how much time is left for the second third? Considering that the Congress adjourns on March 21 and resumes its regular session on May 4 until June 11, only 39 days — 11 Saturdays and Sundays included – will be available for the last third.

Is this sensible? Seven months for the first third; three months for the last third; and only one month and nine days – actually 28 working session days – for the second third! This calls for a miracle.

Sensible Alternative

There can be a miracle – if the Senate adopts in toto the approved SB 4994; or, if it shortens its Committee hearings and consultations and its plenary debates on time for the approval of the BBL by both Houses and for the President to sign the law before the June 11 adjournment sine die. In that case the plebiscite can be held after September 15, 2015.

Should the miracle not happen – most probably it will not – the sensible alternative is to target December 2015 or January 2016 for the President to sign the BBL and to hold the plebiscite simultaneously with the May 16 elections. This will give the Senate ample time to resolve constitutional and other contentious issues in its Committee hearings and plenary debates in concurrence with the approved HB 4994. This will assure that the BBL will be “acceptable to the people and to the Supreme Court”.

Since the Transition Period will be diminished – if not vanish — there is a need to revise Article XVI of the Draft BBL (HB 4994 and SB 2408) to reset the election of the regular officials of the Bangsamoro to May 2019, allowing the Transition Period a full-term three years. This will redound to a more firmly rooted Bangsamoro.

This will undo the worrisome implications of the puzzle stated at the outset.

Footnote: Revising Article XVI

Even if the BBL is signed by the President after June 11, 2015 and the plebiscite held in the second half of September 2015, the ADCBBL or the Congress should not ignore the emerging calls for the extension of the transition period (Luwaran, December 16, 2014: Calls for extension of transition period increase). The more there is a need to study the revision considering the very short transition period possible under the present legislative timelines.

Reports Luwaran, the official website of the MILF Central Committee on Information, citing four calls: Proposals for extending the expected transition period for the Bangsamoro continued to grow in number in the last leg of the Mindanao consultations made by the Congressional Adhoc Committee on the BBL.

The four calls:

[1] On December 10 at Buluan (Maguindanao), a high-ranking official of DepED ARMM suggested that the first regular elections for the Bangsamoro Parliament be made in 2019 instead of May 2016 as contained in the draft BBL.

[2] In the following day at the CAP auditorium in Davao City, no less than Magdalo Partylist Rep. Garry Alejano proposed before his fellow members of the Adhoc committee that the transition period be extended since “a year or less than a year is not enough” to effectively prepare for the regular Bangsamoro government.

[3] The Mindanao Peoples Caucus also submitted a formal petition to the Adhoc committee in Davao.

[4] A similar sentiment for lengthening the transition time was also expressed by a punong barangay of Butuan City in the 30th public hearing held at the Caraga State University on December 13.

The calls are sensible. The Moro people, individually or as groups, should rally behind the calls, following them up with petitions to the AHCBBL and asking their district representatives to carry out their wishes.

Essentially, the revision can be like this: Upon the ratification of the BBL, the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) is constituted to receive the ARMM from its outgoing elected officials. When the Bangsamoro is established and inaugurated before President Benigno Simeon C, Aquino III steps down on June 30, 2016, the BTA automatically becomes the Bangsamoro Transition Government until the election of the regular officials in May 2019.

Why does the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, on its own, not present a revision to the Office of the President and AHCBBL?

In a sense, the very short transition period possible under the prevailing legislative timelines are a puzzle with enigmatic clues and worrisome implications to Bangsamoro. By the Luwaran report, the emerging calls from concerned individuals and groups to extend the transition period are the initial moves to solve the puzzle and undo its worrisome implications on Bangsamoro.

The calls are most sensible. Proper transition is vital to the future of Bangsamoro. If there is very short time for this under Article XVI, revise the article to allow more time – the full-term three years as originally agreed. There is no reason why the Peace Panels, OPAPP Sec. Teresita Quintos-Deles, MILF Chairman Murad Ibrahim and President Aquino III will object.   (Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at [email protected].)