House: Hello, good-bye to FOI billBy Leila B. Salaverria, TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
A few days after finally sponsoring the freedom of information (FOI) bill on the House floor, public information committee chairman Rep. Ben Evardone is waving the white flag, saying there is simply not enough time left to pass the long-pending measure.
Evardone made the statement Wednesday night as he noted that debates on the measure had not even begun.
“[I’m waving the] white flag,” he told reporters.
The bill finally reached the plenary on Monday by way of sponsorship speeches by Evardone and Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada, the bill’s main author. Supporters said lack of a quorum was the reason the debate did not push through.
Even if it is passed on second reading next week, the bill would need another three days before it could undergo a third reading vote. Only three session days remain before Congress adjourns for the election campaign period.
June meet slated
Congress will meet again, but for only one day in June, before adjourning for the final time and Evardone does not think a vote could be taken then. There may even be a lot of lawmakers absent then, he said.
Evardone said the bill could be revived only if President Aquino certified it as urgent. Certification would allow a second and third reading vote on the bill on the same day.
“If Erin Tañada can secure a certification, this might revive the FOI bill,” he said.
Presidential spokesperson Secretary Edwin Lacierda, however, said Thursday the bill should be subjected to a “healthy debate,” the kind that attended the responsible parenthood and reproductive health bill and the sin tax reform measure before they were passed into law.
Both bills were approved by Congress late last year and enacted into law by President Aquino, after several years of debate.
“Whether this Congress or the next Congress, we want a healthy debate to take place. That’s what we want and, in fairness to all constituents, let’s have a healthy debate,” Lacierda said in a Palace briefing.
Asked if President Aquino wanted the FOI bill approved before he steps down in 2016, Lacierda said the Chief Executive was interested in seeing how the House debate would turn out.
“What we want right now is a healthy debate and let’s take it from there,” he said.
The Senate has passed its version of the FOI bill.
Lacierda said the FOI bill proponents themselves had indicated that they had “no qualms” about the Aquino administration’s transparency, but were worried about the next administration.
“I say this without lifting our own bench. The FOI proponents believe and this is what they said, what they mentioned to us: ‘We are not afraid that this administration will not be transparent.’ In fact we have been very transparent and, in fact, we intend to show you the list of measures that we have done to show that we have been transparent in our transactions,” Lacierda said.
But another of the bill’s proponents, Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, said he was not surprised by Evardone’s “surrender,” adding that it was the latter who appeared to be holding the bill back in his committee with numerous delays and his apparent lack of will to push it in the plenary.
Baguilat said he considered the bill to be in “limbo.”
“I don’t like calling it dead. I’d like to think the FOI is Snow White slumbering and waiting for a prince to resuscitate it,” Baguilat said.
“If no Aquino certification comes as a last-minute lifeline, then we will continue the fight in the next Congress,” he said.
Advocates of the FOI bill have also blamed Evardone for its delay, accusing him of “dribbling” the measure and not scheduling committee hearings so that time would run out on it.
Evardone denied the allegations, saying he had waited for comments from the bill’s stakeholders before coming out with the final version of the measure.
As for the 117 lawmakers who signed the statement of support for the FOI bill, Evardone said lawmakers usually signed such statements as a gesture of goodwill to their colleagues. But he did not think that most of them really supported the measure.
“Otherwise, they would have shown up and pushed for it,” he said.
FOI in a nutshell
The bill would allow public access to government dealings and documents in line with a policy of full disclosure. It is intended to foster good governance and promote transparency and accountability in government.
Tañada, however, refused to pronounce the measure dead.
He said that if Evardone thinks it won’t progress, he should delegate his authority as the bill’s sponsor to him, Baguilat or Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello so they could pursue the FOI debates in the plenary.
“I would rather try to push the FOI as far as I and the sponsors can and let it be known that it was again the House members, including the minority, who killed the FOI due to a lack of quorum,” he said.