BBL splits Congress
CANBERRA—The effort of the Aquino administration to ram through Congress the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law has run into an impasse between the Liberal-Party-dominated House of Representatives and the Senate, where independent-minded senators are resisting pressure to join the Malacañang-driven express train to create a Bangsamoro substate in Mindanao.
Time is running out on the bill, considered as crucial to bringing peace in Mindanao which has been engulfed in more than 30 years of Moro rebellion last led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The BBL seeks to implement the peace agreement signed between the Philippine government and the MILF. Congress must pass the BBL before it adjourns in mid-June. But the prospects of this happening are dim because the deadlock in Congress appears to be hardening rather than dissolving.
Last week, Sen. Francis Escudero, one of the principal opponents of the BBL, said he did not think President Aquino would have the bill he had certified for urgent enactment by Congress completed in time for his final State of the Nation Address (Sona) on July 27. “It is impossible that the President would be able to sign the BBL before his Sona. That’s impossible because even if Congress would be able to pass it on June 11, it’s certain that the Senate and the House of Representatives will have very different versions,” Escudero said. He said he expected the bicameral committee that would reconcile the conflicting versions of the BBL to have a long and hot debate on the centerpiece of Malacañang’s peace agreement with the MILF.
Another oppositionist opponent of the BBL, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who chairs the Senate committee on local governments, has lined up two more hearings on the bill—the last on June 3—before coming up with a report. After June 3, the Senate still has three more sessions before Congress adjourns sine die.
This foreshadows rough sailing for the BBL in the bicameral meetings. Resentment rankled in the Senate over the roughshod tactics used by Malacañang in pushing the BBL draft in the House. “I think all the senators do not want what happened in the House to happen in the Senate,” Marcos said, referring to criticism that the bill was “railroaded” during the three-day hearing last week of the House committee chaired by Rep. Rufus Rodriguez. The committee deliberated on the Palace version of the bill, chosen during two meetings of its leaders with President Aquino in Malacañang. Those who would vote for its approval, according to press reports, were promised P50 million in pork barrel projects and P1 million in cash. Malacañang has denied the alleged tradeoff, which has been criticized in the press as tantamount to bribery.
Something more onerous than dangling pork barrel incentives or rewards apparently took place in the Palace meetings on the BBL. Before the meetings, Rodriguez had said in radio interviews that there was a “consensus” among the committee members that at least six provisions in the draft bill contravened the Constitution and should go—separate commissions on audit, on elections, on civil service and on human rights, separate ombudsman, and the “opt-in” membership in the Bangsamoro entity. But these subjects remained in the committee draft, with very minor revisions. Critics were scandalized by the “marketplace manner” in which the committee rammed through the approval of the BBL, which had been delayed following widespread indignation over the Jan. 25 massacre of 44 Special Action Force troopers by Moro guerrillas in an area controlled by the MILF.
According to Marcos, the House-approved version of the BBL was worse because it did not include amendments that some congressmen wanted. He pointed to the proposal to include 10 provinces in the new Bangsamoro region, describing it as “creeping expansion.”
The split in the conflicting versions of the House and Senate drafts was pronounced in a draft committee report of Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, chair of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments. Her committee draft report questioned the constitutionality of some provisions in the BBL concerning local autonomy.
Sensing that the storm clouds looming over the Senate and the House on the BBL would scuttle his peace initiative, the President made conciliatory moves, offering a dialogue with the senators to discuss their reservations about the bill which swiftly hurdled a House committee after meetings with him. “If they want to talk to me about this so that I won’t be intrusive, if they would invite me to share my opinion in a meeting, wouldn’t I do that? We’re ready for that,” the President said. He said he was confident that the senators would “see that the [BBL] will withstand the test of constitutionality.”
Whether or not the senators would like to talk with the President in the Palace, it seems certain that, given the Senate’s tradition of independence vis-à-vis the executive branch, they would be loath to step on Palace grounds to conspire with him in watering down the peace agreement with the MILF, by ceding to them terms that further weaken the Philippine republic’s control over the components and territory of the national state under the government’s policy of appeasement to demands of separatist armed movements. That would be treason.
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