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Long road to passage

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It might strike many, particularly supporters of the freedom of information bill, as mere “consuelo  de  bobo” (cold comfort) to say that the fate of this piece of legislation is but par for the course of many other bills making their way to enactment into law.

The FOI bill failed to make it in time for passage before the end of the 15th Congress, marking the second time the bill has been stalled in the House of Representatives. If you will recall, in the 14th Congress, the bill was passed by the Senate but was left in limbo in the House, despite a last-minute push. In the 15th Congress, supporters were initially optimistic, especially since P-Noy had come out publicly in support of this measure during the campaign. But there was a palpable softening of support on the part of the President eventually, with P-Noy citing the concerns of “the national security sector.” Despite calls from the bill’s sponsors, particularly Quezon Rep. Erin Tañada, the President refused to certify the bill as urgent, and showed what some critics described as “tepid support” at best for the measure.

Now the same sponsors, partymates of P-Noy, assure us that passage of the FOI bill can be expected in the next Congress. Representative Tañada even confidently declared that “we will see an FOI law before [the President] steps down.”

Frustrating it might be, but the FOI supporters should realize that it does take more than the life of one Congress to pass a bill into law.

* * *

At a recent recognition ceremony for Rep. Edcel Lagman, who was the main sponsor of the reproductive health bill in the last two (or was it three?) Congresses, former Sen. Leticia Ramos Shahani recalled that the RH bill was first filed in the eighth Congress.

This means that the RH bill took eight—count ’em—eight Congresses before finally being signed into law, the pace of enactment speeded up by a cliff-hanger certification from Malacañang.

Recall, too, that many times the RH bill could not even make it out of committee, with the executive and legislative leadership at various times intimidated by Catholic bishops and conservative groups who threatened hellfire and damnation should the RH bill progress. It was only in the 14th Congress, in fact, that the bill managed to be reported out of committee. But then Speaker Prospero Nograles, despite his promises to act promptly on the matter, proceeded to dilly-dally, constantly assuring Lagman of timely action; it turned out that then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had already instructed him to “kill” the bill.

If any of the reproductive health proponents, not just legislators but also NGOs, had thrown up their hands and given up on the passage of the RH measure, then we would probably still be a society quibbling over when life begins and whether contraceptives are abortifacients or not. Well, come to think of it, those debates are still being heard (most notably in the petitions filed in the Supreme Court), but we now have the RH Law that assures services for poor women who need them and sex education for young people, among other things.

* * *

As Sen. Pia Cayetano, who defended the RH bill at the Senate, told me, it was signed into law simply because “its time had come.” A function of the decades that passed since the first bill was introduced was that it gave enough time for public opinion to build up in support of the measure. Developments in information technology, such as e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, made it easier and faster for proponents to share information and opinion, and for these to reach legislators and policymakers, while all sorts of creative protests and actions dramatized the issue before the public.

And maybe, too, it helped that public opinion had, since the 1980s, been solidly in support of family planning in particular and of reproductive health in general.

Maybe that’s what those pushing for the FOI bill need to do: study the lay of the land and determine if there is sufficient public-opinion support for the measure. In the first place, do ordinary people know what “freedom of information” is all about? Do they realize what it will mean to them in their day-to-day lives? If it is, as proponents say, a significant anticorruption measure, maybe they need to explain in detail how access to documents can “modify the greed” of politicians and officials.

* * *

Already, we are hearing good things from FOI champions in the House.

Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, likewise a champion of the RH bill, says that in the next Congress (assuming he and his ilk win reelection) they will work early to “enlist public support through a more aggressive information campaign to make people understand the bill and its relevance to their lives.”

And despite—or because—of their frustrations in the last two Congresses, Baguilat says they “have learned their lessons in legislative warfare.” One of these lessons is the need to “court the support of fellow legislators early and take control of the public information committee (under which the FOI bill falls) and its agenda.”

For Representative Tañada, belief in the afterlife is a necessity. Supporters, he said, should keep faith that the bill “will resurrect itself in the 16th Congress” and “advocates will be there to continue to push for FOI.”

Still, this doesn’t fully explain why P-Noy changed course after his swearing-in and turned half-hearted in his support for the FOI bill during the first half of his term. I’m curious to know what turned him around on the issue, and what reforms and amendments to the bill he would require before signing it into law. I hope he won’t play brinkmanship on FOI like he did with the RH Law.


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Tags: bills , column , congress , freedom of information bill , passage , reproductive health law , Rina Jimenez-David



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