Congress takes its sweet time to pass urgent bills

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WITH 20 months left before the 2016 elections for the new President of the Philippines and the lawmakers’ discretionary Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) gone, will the House of Representatives still be capable of doing its main job of law-making despite perceived loss of drive and lack of “incentive” to do what is expected of it?

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In less than two years before the national polls, the 16th Congress will have to act on the more signific ant measures: Freedom of Information (FOI) bill; the proposal for Charter change or Cha-cha, which seeks to lift restrictions on foreign ownership of public utilities and mass media; the Anti-Political Dynasty bill; and the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

The BBL would establish the Bangsamoro Region; grant minority Filipino Muslims greater autonomy in running their regional government and managing their resources; and disarm Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) combatants.

More important, it is expected to help end 40 years of armed conflict between the Philippine government and the MILF that had bred poverty and claimed lives.

Despite the apparent urgency of enacting into law the more significant bills, it is more likely that they would be passed in 2015 or a year before the 2016 national elections.

This reading takes off from the 15th Congress passing the “Sin” Tax bill and the Reproductive Health bill in 2012 or a year before the 2013 mid-year polls.

The earliest that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law can be tackled by the 75-strong Ad Hoc Committee is in October because the House will be engaged in plenary debates on the proposed P2.606-trillion budget for 2015 in the next two weeks.

“There’s no time [for the BBL for now]because of the budget [deliberations]. We will be adjourning September 27 and we go on a three-week break. I don’t think they [Ad Hoc Committee members] will meet during the break. The earliest that they can meet is when we go back in the third week of October. From there, they can proceed,” House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales 2nd of Mandaluyong City (Metro Manila) said in an interview.

The initial target date for passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in Congress is December this year, but a four-month delay in the submission of the proposed measure to Congress has pushed back its expected approval to March 2015–a year before the campaign period for the 2016 elections starts.

Charter change
Resolution of Both Houses 1 on Cha-cha that is limited to economic amendments to the 1987 Constitution as proposed by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and the Anti-Political Dynasty bill are being debated in the plenary on an alternate basis.

This resolution seemed to have escaped escape public attention until President Benigno Aquino 3rd said in a television interview that he was open to changing economic provisions of the Constitution if the people would support him.

But staunch critics of Cha-cha of any kind from the Makabayan (Nationalist) bloc in the House of Representatives–Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Kabataan and Anakpawis party-list groups–called Belmonte’s proposal as a Trojan horse for term extension.

Late former President Corazon Aquino, mother of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, could have said so herself: The 1987 Constitution that provides only a single six-year term without reelection for the President was drafted during her administration (1986-1992).

The spotlight of the Anti-Political Dynasty bill, shines on Vice President Jejomar Binay and his children who are also in power: Senator Nancy Binay, House Deputy Majority Leader Abigail Binay of Makati City (Metro Manila) and Makati City Mayor Jejomar Erwin “Junjun” Binay.

Vice President Binay, leader of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), has been topping surveys on the people’s choice for President in the 2016 elections.

The proposed Anti-Political Dynasty Bill prohibits two or more individuals who are related up to the second degree of consanguinity from holding or running for a national or local post in successive, simultaneous or overlapping terms.

If passed, the bill would bar the incumbent Vice President from running for President since Sen. Binay’s term will only expire by 2019.

An author of the groundbreaking measure, Rep. Edgar Erice of Caloocan City (Metro Manila), is also a member of the ruling Liberal Party (LP) headed by President Aquino.

In his sponsorship speech, Erice noted that the Constitution mandates Congress to pass an enabling law against political dynasties and argued that nine out of 10 provinces are poor because they are ruled by political dynasties whose family members are elected based on their family names instead of merits.

Lawmakers crossed party lines in opposing Erice’s argument.

Deputy Speaker Sergio Apostol of Leyte (LP), Elpidio Barzaga of Cavite (National Union Party), Gus Tambunting of Parañaque City, Metro Manila (UNA), Amado Bagatsing of Manila (LP) and Jonathan dela Cruz of Abakada party-list said the Anti-Political Dynasty measure curtails the constitutional right to freedom of choice on the part of the voters and discriminates against political clans whose members could be of service to the people.

“This bill would deprive approximately two million [people]from running for office only on the account of birth or affinity, discounting their passion for public service,” Barzaga, a lawyer, pointed out, during the plenary debates.

“This would in effect limit the voters’ choices as to whom to vote [for], if not legislate against certain class of people who might want to serve,” dela Cruz said.

Rep. Frednil Castro of Capiz, who is defending the measure on the floor in his capacity as chairman of the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, noted that the Anti-Political Dynasty bill does not prevent a member of a political clan to run for office but merely regulates the clan from dominating elective posts to the detriment of other less-moneyed candidates who genuinely want to serve the country.

Bagatsing, however, said no law should get in the way of sovereignty of the electorate ,whom he claims are all capable of sound judgment in electing public officials.

“Voters are wiser and comfortable with their own choices even without the bill because there are also instances when candidates from political clans were rejected by the voting public. Sovereignty resides in the people and all authority and power emanates from them,” he added.

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