Mind da News: ‘Honorable’ but Irresponsible

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GENERAL SANTOS CITY, August 28, 2015 – In the media, they strongly express their optimism the House version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law would be passed next month despite that legislative action is at a stand-still for the lack of quorum as time inexorably ticks on.

At the Palace

The Philippine Star reported (August 25. 2015: Senate starts debates on Bangsamoro law) President Aquino expressing yesterday, Monday, August 24:

  • Certainty that despite the consistent lack of quorum among members of the House of Representatives, a majority of the legislators will definitely show up once voting on the BBL takes place.
  • His firm belief that being lawmakers, the congressmen will not shirk in their mandate to pass significant laws, particularly BBL, which will bring about lasting peace in war-torn Mindanao, home to a Muslim minority.

At the OPAPP and the House

MindaNews Editor-in-Chief Carolyn O. Arguillas reported last Monday, August 24 (Pass the BBL now or pass on to next administration?) what MindaNews had been told on the day before, August 23:

  • Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process: The Office of the President and the leadership of both Houses of Congress “remain committed to the enactment of a meaningful and mutually acceptable BBL within President Aquino’s term of office.” (Bold italics ours)
  • Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of House Ad Hoc Committee on BBL: They “still have time to finish the bill by September 15” (11 session days from August 24) and that “there will be quorum tomorrow (Monday) up to Wednesday.” [N.B. From Monday, August 31, that will only be eight days. – ppd]
  • “I agree with Rufus,” Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Pangalian Balindong of Lanao del Sur, said. “Never say die.”

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. on Sunday, August 23, texted this message to reporters: “I am still hopeful. We will work hard because the peace measure is very important to attain peace and the President was right in pushing for its approval.” He was referring to the BBL, optimistic that the House of Representatives could still pass it despite the problem of absenteeism among the House members. (The Philippine Star, August 24, 2015: Belmonte: House can still pass BBL)

The primary problem is the quorum. The Speaker himself said it. How has the House leadership been handling the problem?

Rodriguez has been over positive. “There will be quorum tomorrow (Monday) up to Wednesday. We will have interpellations.” (MindaNews, August 23, 2015: Rufus says BBL passed by Sept. 15). We visited the websites of the major national media morning and afternoon. There was no report of quorum and interpellations at the House on August 24, 25 and 26,

According to MindaNews and national media reports, there was also no quorum, on August 4 and 5 and August 10 and 11. On August 12, only two representatives managed to interpellate: Anakpawis Rep. Fernando Hicap and Rep. Rodolfo Biazon started his interpellation and will continue when sessions resume. There were no interpellation on the third week – August 17, 18 and 19 – again because of quorum problems.

Last July 27, Rodriguez, elated by President Aquino’s four-sentence endorsement of the BBL, said they would “be hitting the ground running” on August 4. They must have broken their legs on hitting the ground; they were not even crawling.

Belmonte has been texting. “I’ve been texting the members (to help us), from each of the component parties of the majority, of the coalition. I anticipate something better next week.” (The Philippine Star, August 24, 2015: Belmonte: House can still pass BBL)

The same Star report said that in the previous week, Belmonte met with leaders of the Liberal Party-led majority coalition to seek their help in gathering sufficient attendance so the House could speed up debates on the proposed BBL. Still, there was no quorum for August 24, 25 and 26.

Was Rodriguez rationalizing a possible change of his “September 15 target? The Star reported him as sharing the speaker’s optimism on the eventual passage of the draft BBL with the remark that there is enough time between now and December to pass the proposed law. The Star mentioned that Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III agreed with Belmonte and Rodriguez.

How serious is the quorum problem in the House?

Take it from the House members themselves. The lack of quorum takes two forms: first, the members being absent; or, second, the members reporting for the attendance record then leaving the session hall or the House premises. The second, “attendance padding”, is least expected of members of the Congress who are addressed “Honorable”.

Rep. Lito Atienza, who has vowed to question the quorum in every session day that attendance is insufficient, urged the House not to pad attendance. He told media one instance:

“Last Monday, August 24, after the roll call, the presiding officer declared that 185 members were present. However, I and my staff counted only 88 members in the session hall.” While the “185” was seven short of the “192” for a quorum, the question was: “How could “185” be only “88”?

Then Makati Rep. Abigail Binay, who was acting floor leader, informed him that the 185 included members who showed up to register their presence but were in the lounge when the roll was called. He protested that only those physically present should be counted.

He also related: “I frequently do not see some members who are seated not far from me, and yet, whenever there is an attendance report from the secretariat, they have perfect attendance. Either the secretariat does not know how to count or there is collusion to fabricate attendance.”

Isn’t the lack of quorum that has grounded the interpellations on HB 5811 a clear manifestation by most of the House members of their lack of interest in the BBL?

This InterAksyon.com report on August 25, 2015 intrigues: “Quorum was present with 192 lawmakers on the floor on Monday’s (August 24) session, which allowed the approval on third reading of at least 10 local and national bills.  After about an hour in session, however, Buhay partylist Representative Lito Atienza, seeing fewer members on the floor, rose and questioned the quorum.  For lack of congressmen, the session was adjourned.”

This report and that of the Star above on the Atienza-Binay exchange on “attendance padding” must have been sequential. The representatives stayed to vote on local and national bills but did not stay for the interpellations on HB 5811.

The fact is clear: House representatives come to vote for the bills they are interested in or when they are pressured to. This gives substance to President Aquino’s certainty that a majority of the legislators will definitely show up to vote on the BBL.

Can legislators be compelled to attend sessions?

The word “compel” is disgraceful for “honorable” men and women. But, yes, they can be compelled under Section 76 of the Rules of the House on the “Absence of Quorum”, stating: “In the absence of a quorum after the roll call, the Members present may compel the attendance of absent Members.” This restates Article VI, Section 16(2) of the 1987 Constitution.

But InterAksyon.com (August 25, 2015: QUORUM CONUNDRUM | House rules allow lawmakers to order arrest of absentee peers), in reference to the persistent absence of quorum despite this House Rule, asked: But who will do it?”

As gleaned from national media reports, this House rule has never been enforced by past Speakers. There are no indications that Speaker Belmonte will enforce it to ensure quorum for the deliberation on HB 5811 until it is passed. He only has instructed his office staff to text the House members with a threat to publish attendance reports.

Neither are there indications that the small number of members present every session day would act as the 1987 Constitution provides, a smaller number may adjourn from day to day and may compel the attendance of absent Members in such manner, and under such penalties, as each House may provide”. However, they want severer penalties imposed like “no work, no pay” and “suspension” and “expulsion” as provided in Article VI, Section 16(3) of the 1987 Constitution.

However, if the Speaker and those present every session are unwilling to enforce the present House Rule 76, who will enforce the severer penalties? In fact, without quorum, how can the House pass resolutions for severer penalties?

Is quorum not a matter ofhonor and responsibility to people’s mandate and the Constitution?

Why must congressmen and congresswomen be compelled to attend sessions? Their mandate is to represent their constituents. They must be present in every session unless there is a compelling reason for an excuse or with excuses allowed under the rules. Certainly, “performing legislative work in their districts” in disguise of attending to their personal and business affairs or to their reelection is a most reprehensible excuse.

Attending sessions is a constitutional mandate (Article VI, Section 1); absence without valid excuse causing lack of quorum is also a violation of Article VI, Section 16(3). It is hypocritical for the members of the House to delete provisions of Draft BBL allegedly for being unconstitutional while they culpably violate the Constitution by skipping the plenary sessions to prevent deliberation due to the lack of quorum.

Incidentally, is it any better in the Senate?

As The Philippine Star and the OPAPP Website reported on August 25 and 27, plenary deliberations on SB 2894, the substitute of SB 2408 or Draft BBL, started on Monday (August 24) continuing on the next day but not on August 26 for lack of quorum.

The real obstacle to the passage of the BBL, even of the substitute bills — HB 5811 and SB 2894 — are the Members of the Congress. If only they are as responsible as they are addressed, Honorable”!

(Author’s Note: Mind da News, the alternate of COMMENT, is a comment on current news. The author may be contacted at patponcediaz@yahoo.com.)

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