Languishing in legislative mill
By Dec. 15, when Congress is supposed to go on recess, the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) would be in the same place it has been since the start of the Duterte administration a year and a half ago: in limbo.
A draft submitted to the two chambers of Congress in August, drawn up by the Bangsamoro Transition Council, has not merited any of the debates and discussions that lawmakers have lavished on, for example, the impeachment complaint against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
In November, at the culmination of a Bangsamoro Assembly at Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao, President Duterte dangled the idea of calling a special session of Congress after the Christmas break to hear from the proponents of the bill.
He was quoted as saying: “I will work very hard for it. I will ask Congress to [hold] a special session just to hear you talk about this issue. I said this is sacred. This is important and valuable. It would involve eventually, if the people wish it, a new structure for the entire country.”
But the President’s plea was apparently not enough to sway the leaders of the House of Representatives. Just a day after Mr. Duterte’s speech, Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, speaking for Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, shot down the idea of a special session, saying Alvarez was committed to finish deliberations and pass the bill by mid-March 2018.
A special session of a day or two days in this holiday season, as the President was proposing, was simply too tight and too little.
“We need public hearings again and the committees have to go around the country for that,” said Fariñas. “If it’s a special session, we can’t compress [the deliberations].”
The last word so far on this back-and-forth that’s not even about the substance of the BBL itself but about when to finally table it for discussion and approval was from the House committee on local government, which last week moved the target date for the BBL’s passage even further — to June 2018.
“This year? It can’t be. We only have three meetings in December before we have a break,” protested South Cotabato Rep. Pedro Acharon Jr., the chair of one of the three committees studying the bill.
“On the part … of the House of Representatives, we will try to pass this before we adjourn [in] June,” he added.
What is going on? Why is this important piece of legislation languishing in the legislative mill?
If the notion of giving Muslim Mindanao an inclusive Bangsamoro autonomous territory in the hope of finally achieving peace for the region is indeed “sacred, important and valuable,” as Mr. Duterte has put it, how come the process itself so far appears to be characterized by alternating fits of delay, neglect and haste?
Mr. Duterte himself has only intermittently nudged the issue — one of his key campaign promises — ever since he began his presidency; he has instead devoted his governance to the war on drugs and a campaign of attrition against his administration’s perceived enemies.
In September, Mr. Duterte agreed to certify as urgent two proposed laws — the tax reform bill and the BBL. Lawmakers apparently got the memo on the first, because the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion or TRAIN has hurdled both the Senate and the House.
The other urgent bill, however, arguably demands a longer, more detailed period of discussion given its radical constitutional implications: It seeks to abolish the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, established by the 1987 Constitution, and to replace it with a new self-governing entity with bigger territory and expanded powers. But the measure has, at this point, gotten only short shrift from both Malacañang and the lawmakers.
And now, suddenly, the talk is how to hasten the bill’s approval. The prospects for peace in Mindanao, unfortunately derailed from a promising track, hinge on a fair, well-crafted BBL acceptable to all stakeholders.
The urgency is clear, and it should go without saying that the path to be taken needs to be prudent and wise.
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