Passing the BBL by Dec. 16: 15 session days in the House, 8 session days in the Senate

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/04 Nov) – Congress has been urged by various sectors to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) by December 16, the target date set last month by the Senate and House leadership, but will it be able to meet its own deadline considering that between the next session day on November 9 and December 16 are only 15 session days left for the lower house plagued by a “no quorum” problem and an even shorter period of eight session days for the upper house that will be devoting substantial time to passing the 2016 national budget?

On Wednesday morning, Senate President Franklin Drilon told Bombo Radyo Philippines that the Senate and House leadership will meet Thursday to discuss “aming final two months or three months in session, kung ano po yung aming kayang tatapusin” (our final two months or three months in session, on what we can finish).

Senate President Franklin Drilon. Photo from the Senate Gallery Senate President Franklin Drilon. Photo from the Senate Gallery

In the transcript of the interview posted on the Senate website, Drilon, responding to a question if there was still a chance for the BBL to pass, replied, “yes,” adding he and Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., chair of the Senate Committee on Local Government, talked about it Tuesday and that interpellations would resume on Wednesday with Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III continuing his interpellation. Before Congress went on recess from October 10 to November 2, Sotto started interpellation on September 16, then continued it on Sept. 22, 23 and 28.

On Wednesday afternoon, however, Sotto gave way to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, Senate Minority Leader, who interpellated from 5:14 p.m. to 6:26 p.m, livestreamed from the Senate.

At the end of his Day 1 interpellation, Enrile manifested he would continue on Monday, November 9, starting with Article 2 of the 17-article SB 2894 or Basic Law of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR), the substitute bill to SB 2408 or the draft BBL submitted to Congress on September 10, 2014 by the 15-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC). The BTC, composed of government (GPH) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front members (MILF), drafted the BBL and finalized it with the Office of the President before submitting it to Congress in ceremonial rites held in Malacanang.

Under the roadmap agreed upon by the GPH and MILF in the October 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the President was supposed to certify the draft BBL —  HB 4994 and SB 2408 — as urgent but no certification has been issued.

Sotto, also Senate Deputy Minority Leader, announced for the record that Enrile will continue interpellating on Monday “and as much as possible he would want to finish it without interference.”

Sotto said this was why he suspended his interpellation in favor of Enrile. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has also manifested she would interpellate after Enrile, he added.

Budget talk: Nov. 11 to Dec. 2

Deliberations on the BBL, however, will only be two more days in November – November 9 and 10 — and will resume on December 7, according to the schedule Drilon told Bombo Radyo.

The Senate has blocked off session days from November 11 to December 2 for the budget deliberations.

Drilon said he is asking the Finance Committee chair, Senator Loren Legarda, to sponsor it on November 11 so interpellation could proceed on November 12, 13 and 16 but will have to be suspended on the 17th, 18th and 19th due to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.

The sessions on November 23 to 27 – or two days longer than the usual Monday to Wednesday sessions –will focus on the budget so that it will be approved by the first week of December and sent to President Aquino before or on the third week of December for his signature, Drilon said.

In the same interview, Drilon said they have reserved November 9 and 10 for Senator Enrile’s interpellation but that he was not sure if Enrile could finish it in three days. “Kung hindi man matapos ay amin pong ipagpapatuloy iyan pagkatapos ng budget sa second week of December, by December 7 siguro at amin pong sisikapin na matapos ito bago po matapos ang Disyembre” (If he’s not finished, we will continue after the budget deliberations, by the second week of December, or by December 7 and we will try to finish this before December ends).

The Senate will go on Christmas break from December 19 to January 18, resume sessions from January 19 to February 5 for only eight session days, and go on break again for the elections, from February 6 to May 22.

At the House of Representatives, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law in August eyed September 15 as the target date for passage of HB 5811 or BLBAR, its substitute bill to the draft BBL. The problem of lack of quorum, however, resulted to only five representatives finishing their interpellation during the sessions between August 4 and September 23.

Zamboanga City Rep. Celso Lobregat managed to interpellate for a few minutes on September 23, as continuation from his June 10 interpellation, but it was suspended as Buhay party list Rep. Lito Atienza questioned the quorum, and the period of interpellation itself was suspended to give way to the plenary debates on the national budget, until Congress went on recess on October 10.

Before the Sept. 23 suspension of the interpellation, there were still 21 representatives on the list of those who signified intent to interpellate, according to the monitoring of the BTC and the Bangsamoro Study Group.

No guarantee

Both substitute bills in the House and the Senate, however, have been criticized by the MILF and other sectors as providing for a future Bangsamoro that is less than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that it seeks to replace, with the Senate version revising, according to MILF peace panel and BTC chair Mohagher Iqbal, “80 percent of the original BBL” and reducing the Bangsamoro into a mere local government unit.

Belmonte last week appealed to colleagues to attend sessions so a quorum can be mustered. He made a similar appeal in August, two months before the filing of certificates of candidacy (COC) on October 12 to 16, but the quorum problem persisted.

Returning from the recess, many of the representatives are candidates seeking a second or third term and for those who ended their three terms, are running for another office.

A press release posted on the House of Representatives’ website on November 2 quoted Deputy Speaker Pangalian Balindong as saying Congress “should not let this rare opportunity for peace escape our hands.”

Most of the seats of the House members are empty as interpellation for House Bill 5811 continued on June 4, 2015. Session was adjourned before 6 p.m. on August 4, supposedly the resumption of the period of interpellation on HB 5811, due to lack of quorum. MindaNews file photo by Toto Lozano EMPTY HOUSE. Most of the seats of the members of the House of Representatives  are empty during the period of interpellation for House Bill 5811, the substitute bill to the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law,  with this photo taken on June 4, 2015 as an example.  Lack of quorum was also a problem that hounded the House when it  resumed sessions from August to October. Congress returned to session on November 3 but the House has yet to resume interpellations on the Bangsamoro law due to lack of quorum. MindaNews file photo by Toto Lozano

“The 16th congress may not be enjoying the luxury of time, but with political will, there is time to craft a lasting policy for peace to reign upon generations of Filipinos yet to be born,” he said.

He lamented the fact that debates on the BBL could not push through due to lack of quorum.

“I refuse to believe that the future of peace can just be thrown to the dustbin of history by a mere lack of quorum,” Balindong said, adding he has “great faith in our democratic institutions.”

MindaNews asked Rodriguez and Balindong in a text message if the House leadership could guarantee a quorum for the interpellations to resume. Rodriguez, a third-term representative who is running for mayor of Cagayan de Oro, did not send a reply. Balindong replied, “no guarantee.”

Congress resumed sessions on November 3 but BBL was not tackled in both houses. On November 4, the Senate resumed interpellations and adjourned at 6:27 p.m. while the House, according to Balindong, adjourned at 5:30 p.m. for lack of quorum.

The House has 291 members, of which 146 members constitute a quorum. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)