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Publication Date : 08-08-2012
The House of Representatives on Monday abruptly ended debate on the contentious reproductive health bill by sheer force of numbers, after Philippine President Benigno Aquino held a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in the Palace with 182 congressmen, where he urged them to end interpellations on the bill that has been languishing in Congress for almost a decade and a half because of the stiff rear-guard opposition of the Catholic Church.
Within hours of the palace lunch, the majority of the 231 House members present in the plenary voted “viva voce” to cut short interpellations that had bogged down passage of the bill. The vote came from both the members of the majority coalition of parties in the chamber and the minority party, underlining the point that the vote did not run along party lines.
It should be noted that the House did not take a roll call vote, apparently fearing that the method would identify those who voted for the measure and would expose them to political retaliation from the Catholic hierarchy, which has threatened to campaign against the reelection of congressmen who voted for the bill in next year’s mid-term election.
The vote came a day ahead of the scheduled date. It was a few votes shy of the 188 who voted to rush the impeachment complaint against since-dismissed Chief Justice Renato Corona. Nonetheless, it demonstrated that President Aquino prevailed in the current showdown between his administration and the Catholic hierarchy over the RH bill, and the abortion of the debate revealed fears that the longer the open debate on the bill festers in Congress, the more political risks face the administration in the 2013 election.
Some political commentators have expressed views that poll results would determine whether Aquino would be a lame-duck president in the last half of his term. We have to consider that the state-church conflict over the RH bill represents the first major policy challenging the administration. The challenge does not come from any political party, in particular an institutional opposition party, but from a majority church which has its own grassroots network, more extensive than any existing political party.
It is therefore wrong to conclude that the Church, with its infrastructure of parishes nationwide from which to stage political action against a hostile regime, especially on the RH bill, in regard to the issue of contraceptives (that induce abortion), is a pushover after its setback in Congress. (In no way can the Palace-dominated House file an impeachment complaint against any prelate in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, to hold them accountable for the adverse consequences of their determined opposition to the passage of the RH bill.)
The president urgently summoned his allies in Congress on the eve of their scheduled vote to issue a “diplomatic appeal” to put an end to the tiresome debate, according to Palace apologists. Actually, the president saw the politically suicidal course of a continuing acrimonious debate on the bill in Congress.
In reality, the longer the debate goes on, the more the public is informed of its ramifications, pro or con. This is how democratic debate, with its plurality of points of view, works. No matter the heavy fallout of criticism of the bishops’ ultra-conservative views on control of rapid population growth, described by critics as “medieval”, the prelates cannot be silenced. They have their own information channels, but the favoured mode of this government is the closure of debate, where there is an avalanche of information, from top to bottom.
The vote to abort the debate came 24 hours ahead of schedule, thwarting plans of the Church to hold another rally Tuesday to follow up their rally last weekend, where attendance was dampened by the heavy monsoon rains.
Despite the closure of the debate, the measure now goes through a process of amendments before it is put to a vote on second reading in the plenary. The bill is expected during the amendments to undergo changes involving compromises that could water down its more contentious provisions.
Although Palace officials say that the president did not tell those who attended the meeting with him to vote for the bill, he in effect called the troops to muster the numbers to terminate the debate. House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, who put the formal motion to end the debate, said that at the meeting, Aquino told the congressmen (in fact his captive audience) that the bill had been through so much debate, and everybody was already familiar with the issues.
The president said the debate should end, and the legislators could move on to the next stage to perfect the legislation. The president made it clear that he was not telling the lawmakers to vote for the bill; according to Gonzales, the president “just wanted an end to the debates, which has been going on for years. Everybody agreed. More than that, the consensus was that instead of doing it [Tuesday], might as well do it today [Monday].”
From Monday, the House confirmed it has been reduced to a rubber stamp. Parliaments in democratic systems basically function as debating forums. When Congress is tired of performing this function, then it is ready to accept rule by decree. There’s no debate involved in decrees.