Bangsamoro law in the House: no numbers, no quorum

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 20 January) — A day after House Majority Leader said they cannot guarantee the passage of the Bangsamoro law before Congress adjourns again on February 5 because “we really don’t’ have the numbers,” Monday’s session, the first after a month-long holiday, ended at around 6:30 p.m. due to lack of quorum.

On Tuesday, when the roll call was made, 175 representatives out of 290 were reported present. But when the “turno en contra” on the Bangsamoro law started at 6:13 p.m. with San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora followed by Zamboanga City Rep. Celso Lobregat at 6:57 p.m, the number of vacant seats also started increasing, prompting Abakada party-list rep Jonathan dela Cruz to question the quorum at 8:01 p.m., leading to its suspension and adjournment by 8:09 p.m.

On Wednesday, the session was adjourned at 6:29 p.m., after the roll call showed only 144 members present. The House has 290 members; quorum is 146.

NO QUORUM AGAIN. Screen grab from live webcast of the plenary session of the House of Representatives at 5:30 p.m. The session was adjourned at 6:29 p.m. due to lack of quorum NO QUORUM AGAIN. Screen grab from live webcast of the plenary session of the House of Representatives at 5:30 p.m.  Wednesday. The session was adjourned at 6:29 p.m. due to lack of quorum

Speaking in mixed English and Filipino, Rep. Neptali Gonzales, House Majority Leader, said in an interview over DZBB last Sunday that “the truth is, we really don’t have the numbers.”

He said they know there is wide support for it “but this wide support should be expressed by being present. You might say, ‘I am in favor of that’ but if you’re absent… that support is merely a ‘political statement.’”

He said that ‘political statement’ must be converted into actual attendance.

Sustaining a quorum

Gonzales said that in their January 14 meeting with President Aquino in Malacanang after the traditional Vin d’Honneur for the diplomatic corps, they told him about the problem on “how to sustain a quorum.”

The President was reported to have volunteered to personally call on the representatives to attend the sessions.

On Tuesday, the office of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte resorted to a text blast to get members to attend the session.

No quorum was mustered on Monday, the first of nine session days before it adjourns on February 5 for the election campaign, and while Tuesday’s session did muster a quorum, albeit briefly, it ended with the “turno en contra” still unfinished due to lack of quorum.

Lobregat, who spoke for 64 minutes, was supposed to have continued his “turno en contra” on Wednesday, followed by Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Neri Colmenares, but the session was adjourned until January 25, again due to lack of quorum.

Unacceptable status quo

Having agreed that “the status quo is unacceptable,” the government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) on March 27, 2014 to pave the way for the creation of a new autonomous political entity called the “Bangsamoro” to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Aquino had earlier called the ARMM a “failed experiment.”

Replacing the ARMM with the Bangsamoro requires the passage of a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which, under the agreement, is to be drafted by the 15-member GPH-MILF Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC).

The BTC is chaired by Mohagher Iqbal, concurrent chair of the MILF peace panel.

No certificate of urgency

The BTC submitted its draft BBL to Congress in ceremonial rites in Malacanang on September 10, 2014. This was filed in the House as House Bill 4994 and in the Senate as Senate Bill 2408.

Under the peace agreement, it is supposed to be certified as an urgent bill by the President. No certification has since been issued.

After several committee hearings, the House of Representatives’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (AHCBBL) chaired by Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez and the Senate Committee on Local Government headed by Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., filed their substitute bills – HB 5811 and SB 2894, both titled “Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region” or BLBAR.

Both versions have been criticized for envisioning a Bangsamoro that is “less than the ARMM that it seeks to replace.”

Wait for the House?

The House ended its period of interpellation on December 16, and is supposed to proceed to the period of amendments this week. The Senate is still on the period of interpellation.

Senate President Franklin Drilon has repeatedly said they will push for the passage of the SB 2894 or BLBAR but for the first time, in an ambush interview by Senate reporters on Tuesday, he said they would now wait for the House to pass its version.

“The BBL is basically considered in our legislative history as a bill of local application, as a local bill, which means that we wait for the House of Representatives to pass its version. And our legislative history of the ARMM Law and other related laws would show that we always wait for the House to pass it, because bills of local application would originate from the House,” he said.

Drilon said he will “keep on pushing the bill in the Senate,” to finish the period of interpellation “and await the House action afterwards.”

A December 18 press release from Marcos, principal sponsor of SB 2894 said the Senate had yet to “rule whether or not the BLBAR is a bill of local application and thus they would need to await the House version before voting on the measure.”

“Even if the Senate and the House manage to pass the measure, a big hurdle remains as it may prove difficult for the Bicameral Conference Committee to reconcile the differing provisions given the limited time,” Marcos, who is running for Vice President, said.

In the Senate, he said, they are discussing the substitute bill he filed “but in the House they are essentially deliberating on the so-called Palace version.” He said a possible solution may be “for the House to adopt the Senate version or the Senate to adopt the House version to speed up the process.”

There are only six session days left between January 20 and February 5 and passing the Bangsamoro law is not the only priority measure, especially since there is a public clamor for Congress to override the veto by President Aquino of a very popular law increasing the Social Security System monthly pension by PhP 2,000.

Individual amendments

To save time, Gonzales proposed during the meeting in Malacanang that the amendments introduced be proposed as individual amendments, not as a committee amendment “because if you do that, you will go back to the committee and fight it out in the committee.”

Zamora and Lobregat had manifested in their “turno en contra” that they would introduce amendments to HB 5811, Zamora adding that the minority members “are prepared to vote No on the bill as it is now presented.”

Gonzales said he could not recall how many amendments are to be proposed by the Committee, “mga apat” (around four) but did not say what these are.

But the opt-in provision, he said, will be deleted. Rodriguez told MindaNews the two opt-in provisions will be deleted. (see other story)

Morning to Evening

With only six session days left between January 20 and February 5, can the Bangsamoro law pass?

“If we have quorum starting today, we still have the chance to pass BLBAR,” Rodriguez told MindaNews on Tuesday.

Gonzales said they can still pass the law by working from morning to evening, and this would depend on whether or not they finish the period of amendments, and whether or not President Aquino certifies the bill as urgent. 

If the President certifies the bill as urgent, the bill can be passed on second and third reading on the same day instead of waiting for three more days to vote on third reading, he said.

Asked in the DZBB interview if the President gave any assurance that he would certify the bill as urgent, Gonzales replied: “None. No discussion on that. But I think that’s not a problem.”

What apparently will be a problem is what kind of Bangsamoro law will be passed, if at all, given that the BTC in July last year sent Congress an initial list of 28 issues pertaining to substantive provisions in the draft BBL that HB 5811 deleted, and in September, a list of 87 on the Senate version that it said reduced the Bangsamoro into a mere local government unit.

Rodriguez told MindaNews on Tuesday that the BTC’s proposal to restore 28 substantive provisions that HB 5811 deleted from the BBL is not possible.

“Not one of the 28 provisions will be restored,” Rodriguez said.

Asked to comment on Rodriguez’ declaration, Iqbal told MindaNews Tuesday night: “OP (Office of the President) will answer for that,” he said, adding that as the MILF has repeatedly said, “a diluted BBL is unacceptable.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)