It was an instructive contrast. Asked at the Meet Inquirer Multimedia forum last Tuesday about the prospects for passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, President Aquino was both cautious and confident. “Well, I did ask recently both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House and they both laid out, shall we say, some of the difficulties currently in passing the BBL, but they both expressed confidence that the BBL will be passed.” In other words, he was focused on the outcome.
When faced with a similar question about the much-delayed passage of the Freedom of Information Act, however, the President was merely cautious. “There is no change in the FOI. We’ve submitted our position. We can live with the version based on those amendments and I think the question should be brought to Congress and to the Senate rather [than] to us. I mean, ‘okay na’ with the version as amended.” The answer was procedure-oriented.
Why the difference? “No, it’s like this,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. “My priority is BBL, my priority is economic, that fiscal incentive for rationalization, my priority is the pension—that there is no pension system for the uniformed services. I think, more or less, my last count [was] something like 24 or 25 [bills] are my priority.” He went on to explain that it was really up to Congress to determine which bills would become law. “Congress would say: What is really important among all these? You want all 25, you want all 30? What is the most immediate [thing] that should happen?”
He continued in the same vein for a few more minutes. We appreciate his candor on the realities involved in passing legislation; he could have feinted on the issue. But at the same time, we now understand the situation very clearly; with only a few months left before the 16th Congress adjourns for the final time, with the 2016 elections increasingly occupying the lawmakers’ time and attention, the President’s words mean that, yet again, the FOI bill is dead on arrival.
It is of course still within the realm of possibility for both chambers of Congress to create a miracle and pass the FOI bill before the May elections; but if history is any guide, merely possible won’t cut it. (That miracle would be on the order of a quorum of representatives showing up every day for a month.) Despite Speaker Feliciano Belmonte’s own and often repeated assurances, despite undeniable support from the Aquino administration’s own reform constituency, despite the work done in the Senate by Sen. Grace Poe and in the House by members like Rep. Leni Robredo, despite Mr. Aquino’s own campaign promise—the FOI bill won’t pass this year, and therefore during the 16th Congress.
It would have to be reintroduced, yet again, when the 17th Congress convenes in July next year.
The President’s candor allows us to see that the administration’s strategy of moving the big push for the FOI bill to the second half of his term was a grievous mistake.
Assurances from Cabinet secretaries aired before the midterms that the bill would certainly pass after the elections have proved hollow.
But was it just the President’s men, or was his support for the proposed FOI law hollow, too?
He could not have predicted that the controversy over the operation to capture Malaysian terrorist bomb-maker Marwan and the death of 44 Special Action Force troopers in Mamasapano would place the passage of the BBL in jeopardy. But his other priority bills have followed a definite schedule, and simply listing them, as he did on Tuesday, already showed that the FOI bill was not included in the still considerable ambit of his political influence. It was not among his 25 or 30 priorities. It was not, in other words, even in play.
The other priority bills are important, too, but because the proposed FOI law would have embedded the transparency and the spirit of accountability which form the core of Mr. Aquino’s reformist ambitions in the structures of government, and because these were the very principles he campaigned on in 2010, the imminent death of the FOI bill through legislative inertia comes down as a personal betrayal. It’s like a promising relative didn’t keep his word.
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