MANILA, Philippines - Pressure is mounting on House Speaker Prospero Nograles to make sure the Freedom of Information bill is ratified on June 4, when Congress is scheduled to adjourn sine die.
It will be the 14th Congress's last legislative session and final chance to pass the bill into law.
The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, which is supported by the media, grants ordinary citizens access to information of public concern from all branches of government.
It was ratified by the Senate on February 1. Ratification in the House of Representatives is the final requirement before it becomes a law.
Once ratified, it will be submitted to President Arroyo for signature or it can lapse into law. She also has the option to veto it.
“The 14th Congress will be amiss in doing their primary duty of legislating important matters if this bill is not passed. Speaker Nograles himself will miss the chance to be the first Speaker of the House to give our citizens what the Constitution has asked Congress to do – the freedom of information,” said Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III, who has led the bill's passage in the House.
Congress, sitting as the National Board of Canvassers (NBoC), on Monday took a break from the canvassing of votes cast for President and Vice-President to convene separate legislative sessions.
The Senate convened at 10 a.m. and passed a resolution urging the House to ratify the FOI bill.
Canvassing is priority
The House convened a legislative session at 4 p.m., but quickly adjourned without giving time for congressmen to consider the Freedom of Information bill. Nograles said they will not take up any matter other than canvassing.
"I think you will agree with me that canvassing, as the constitutional duty to proclaim the President and Vice-President, takes precedence over legislative matter. If you look at the physical arrangement of the floor today, you will see it is impossible for us to have a legislative session," Nograles said.
Tañada, however, assailed Nograles's position.
“I cannot accept the reasoning that we are still doing the canvassing of votes and thus cannot ratify the bill. The Senate had session this morning and performed their legislative functions. They were able to pass three national bills and eight local bills. I believe that the House of Representatives should not do less than what the Senate does. Why can’t the House meet in the morning to exercise its legislative functions and meet in the afternoon for the canvassing? Doing so would avoid complication with regards to the date of when Congress should end its legislative function vis-à-vis its role as a National Board of Canvassers,” he said.
Congress will take a one-day break from the canvassing on Friday. They will resume on Monday, June 7.
Less than 30 seconds
If there are no objections, ratifying the bill could take less than 30 seconds.
To ratify a bill, the majority floor leader just has to announce the approval of the bicameral committee report and then ask if there are objections. If there is none, the bill is ratified.
"We will continue the pressure and exhaust all legal means to have the people's will respected. As a congressman, Speaker Prospero Nograles should listen to the desires of the voters. He cannot cite a single constituency that is against this measure," said Vincent Lazatin, executive director of the Transparency and Accountability Network (TAN), one of the active groups pushing for the bill's passage.
"He should honor his commitment to ratify. Otherwise, his word has no meaning," Lazatin added.
If not ratified on Friday, all the efforts put in by its advocates will be put to waste. The bill would go back to square one during the 15th Congress.
Nograles could not guarantee the bill's ratification on June 4 He said he will put it in the calendar of business, but he cannot guarantee they will have a quorum.
"I will put it in the agenda and we will take it up on the floor. I'm going to be up there. But how can I guarantee it? I will just preside," Nograles said.
"We will have to campaign for the physical presence. We cannot transact business without a quorum. I need warm bodies. I want the media to help me campaign for warm bodies," he added.
Nograles stressed he should not be blamed if the bill is not ratified.
"I’ve been criticized or praised with this FOI bill. But if you will look at the record, Number 1, you will see that I am the co-author of that FOI bill. Number 2, I was the shepherd of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd reading. Number 3, I formed the bicameral conference [to consolidate the different versions of the Senate and the House of Representatives]," Nograles told House reporters.
"Number 4, we immediately approved it on bicam. Number 5, it was returned to us a little bit too late by the Senate. Number 6, we put it in the agenda. Number 7, it is not my fault that two congressmen from Cebu started to squabble in the floor and we have no quorum [during the last legislative session in February]," he added.
"That is the history. I hope you will be kinder to me because it is very unfair that the FOI bill will be on my shoulder as if I am in control of the matter," Nograles said.