6 session days to Dec. 16 target for passing BBL; CSOs await Ombudsman’s action on lawmakers’ “chronic absenteeism”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 05 December) – There are only six session days left from December 7 to December 16, the supposed target date for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and as civil society organizations are trying variousways to get members of the House of Representatives to attend sessions, they are also awaiting response from Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales on their letter urging her office to investigate the “chronic absenteeism” of lawmakers.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) in Cotabato City and the provinces of Maguindanao, Sulu and North Cotabato that have been monitoring the progress – or lack of it — of the deliberations on the BBL in the House of Representatives have asked the office of Morales to conduct a probe as “chronic absenteeism” in the House is “eroding public trust” and is a “public display of neglect of duty.”

“This is taxpayers money, for God’s sake!” the November 30 letter signed by representatives of 29 predominantly Moro organizations, said as they asked Morales to “please investigate this matter with outmost dispatch as it practically turns the legislative branch into a state of paralysis.”

The letter, coursed through and stamped received by the Office of the Deputy Ombudsman in Mindanao in Davao City on December 1, said records of the House of Representatives “can easily prove the veracity of this complaint.”

ALMOST EMPTY. The plenary hall of the House of Representatives is almost empty as the debate on House Bill 5811 or the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region continued in this photo taken morning of June 10, 2015. The period of interpellation was suspended as Congress adjourned sine die that night. It will resume interpellation on August 4. MindaNews file photo by Toto Lozano
CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM.’  Civil society organizations have complained to Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales to probe the “chronic absenteeism” of members of the House of Representatives.   MindaNews file photo by Toto Lozano

The House has 291 members and 146 members are required to constitute a quorum. Since the BBL was elevated to the plenary on June 1, however, sessions had been adjourned several times due to lack of quorum.

In October, Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., set December 16 as their new target date for passing the BBL. Since Congress resumed sessions on November 3, however, no interpellation of the BBL has been done at the House.

The groups said they are seeking Morales’ help out of a “deep sense of civic duty and utter desperation.”

“It is a matter of public knowledge for the past several months since Congress formally opened in July, sessions after sessions were suspended and adjourned at the House of Representatives for lack of quorum. This can be easily verified with the official records and the live streaming coverage of the plenary session where you can immediately spot there are more empty chairs than people there,” the letter to Morales said.

The letter noted that on November 25, the session opened with “less than 10 legislators present.”

It also said that civil society organizations and peace advocates had been raising the issue of lack of quorum for months now “through public statement, letters, door-to-door campaigns in their offices and appeal to the leadership of the house to do something about this problem.”

Speaker Belmonte had repeatedly appealed to the Representatives to attend sessions, to no avail.

Manila-based Sister Arnold Maria Noel of Balay Rehabilitation Center and the Mindanao Solidarity Network, who has been among CSO representatives attending the sessions at the House since June to monitor the deliberations on the BBL told MindaNews that there was no interpellation again on December 1 and 2 as sessions were again cut short due to lack of quorum.

But Deputy Speaker Pangalian Balindong of Lanao del Sur and Rep. Tupay Loong of Sulu managed to deliver a privilege speech on December 1 and 2, respectively. Their speeches focused on the importance and urgency of passing the BBL and appealed to their colleagues to be present. But only a few representatives were around to hear their speeches.

The CSOs asked Morales: “Are these honorable members of the house of representatives exempt from basic government policy on reporting for duty? What is the policy for their absences? Can they still claim compensation even if they are absent from work? How come ordinary soldiers, policemen and teachers in far-flung areas can manage to report for work while our own lawmakers could not? Since when have they been exempt from reporting for work? The message that the House of Representatives is telling the Filipino people is loud and clear —‘We are above the law.”

In Rome last Friday, President Aquino, according to a report posted on the Presidential Communications Operations Office website, told Malacanang reporters who covered the President’s visit there that he thinks “the movement towards having the BBL in its present form or with a little modification is really just a question of time. It will happen.”

It is not clear what Aquino meant by “BBL in its present form or with a little modification” as what Congress is deliberating on are the substitute bills, HB 5811 and SB 2894, both titled “Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region” (BLBAR) and both criticized for having watered down the provisions of the draft BBL submitted to Congress on September 10, 2014 and making the future Bangsamoro less autonomous than the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that it seeks to replace.

Civil society organizations had earlier issued a statement saying “no to BLBARand the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had repeatedly said they will not accept a watered down version of the BBL.

The PCOO report quoted Aquino as saying the BBL is not his personal monument.

“Pero ulitin ko nga, hindi naman personal kong monumento ito… at sigurado akong mangyayari ito. Kailan mangyayari? Sana sa panahon ko, pero kung hindi, palagay ko inevitable na magkakaroon tayo ng ganyang batas (But I repeat, this is not my personal monument… or that I am sure this will happen. When will this happen? Hopefully during my time, but if it does not happen, I think it is inevitable that we will have the law), Aquino said. The PCOO report did not expound on the last sentence.

Aquino met with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in August 2011 in Tokyo, Japan to “fast-track the peace process.” Both leaders agreed to sign a peace agreement within the first half of the President’s six-year term (2010 to 2013) so that implementation of the peace pact can be done in the last half of his administration, from 2013-2016. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)