THE ADMINISTRATION coalition surprised itself this week with suddenly decisive action on two contentious bills pending in Congress: a plenary vote approving the amendment by substitution of the controversial Reproductive Health bill, and a committee vote endorsing the equally controversial Freedom of Information bill to the plenary.
Considering the state of inaction that had claimed the RH bill in the last four months, the decision of the House leadership on Nov. 26 to put the session to immediate use by introducing a substitute bill, with provisions designed to steady wavering allies and attract new support, took the anti-RH bloc by surprise.
Afterwards, Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II spoke of “parliamentary momentum” shifting to the pro-RH side. If that reading is accurate, credit both the fast action on the substitution and the fact of the substitute bill itself. It is a compromise measure that is, to use the language of the market, priced to move. Both sides of the RH divide should find something useful in the substitute bill—unless one side is not in fact interested in any form of compromise.
Elizabeth Angsioco, a prominent women’s health rights advocate, found the new bill acceptable, noting that while there have been changes, “the substitute bill retains the important provisions, albeit stated differently.” She identified several, including the measure’s propoor focus, the government guarantee of access to and information on contraceptives, and the voluntary nature of participation. Some of the most controversial features of the bill, in the view of the Catholic bishops, were dropped: The government was barred from providing any contraceptives which may “prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum,” and the parental right to opt out of “classes pertaining to reproductive health and sexuality education” for one’s children was reaffirmed.
Not perfect, but a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, a few recalcitrant anti-RH congressmen vowed once again to deploy the delaying tactics that have worked so well in the last four months. This makes us wonder: We thought the threat of a Catholic backlash at the May 2013 elections was the anti-RH bloc’s most potent weapon. How can outraged Catholic bishops and irate parish priests urge the Catholic faithful to throw out all those who voted for the bill, when the anti-RH group is working so hard to block the vote in the first place?
For the bill to finally become law after a dozen fruitless years in Congress, President Aquino must himself put his weight behind the campaign. He must invest his political capital, and certify the substitute bill as urgent. In the eyes of the majority of the members of the Catholic bishops’ conference, the die was cast many years ago; the majority sees him as indisputably pro-RH. The President might as well turn that enmity to good use, by going all out for the substitute bill.
ANOTHER SMALL legislative milestone was marked when the House committee on public information, voting 17 to 3 with one abstention, managed to pass the Freedom of Information bill on Tuesday. The committee chair, Rep. Ben Evardone, said he expects to send the committee report to the plenary next week.
The surprise was the failure of the right-of-reply advocates to attach their patently unconstitutional rider to the FOI bill. Perhaps they studied the legislative terrain again, and saw they might have a better chance of attaching the rider if more members of the House were taking part in the vote. Or perhaps they saw the FOI bill had no real chance of passage in the 15th Congress, and gave the FOI advocates a tactical but pyrrhic victory.
Whatever the case, the bill that President Aquino himself committed to as a campaign promise, the same measure that complements the Aquino administration’s avowed straight path of governance, the very same law-in-the-making that would empower Mr. Aquino’s own boss—ordinary people, citizens of the republic—in the continuing struggle to create a more accountable, a more transparent, democracy, has taken the necessary next step.
What is stopping Mr. Aquino and his entire administration, voted to power on the accountability platform, from going all in on the FOI bill?