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Philippine population bill caught in gridlock
Publication Date : 22-08-2012
The administration-backed reproductive health (RH) bill is caught in a gridlock of filibustering privilege speeches in the House of Representatives, casting doubts on its passage in the current session of the 15th Congress.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s allies in the House majority voted viva voce on August 6 to end interpellation on the measure, cutting short the debate to move the process forward to the next stage—the period of amendments—prior to a plenary vote on second reading.
The attempt to curtail the debate, which is an undemocratic procedure, backfired. Instead of accelerating the process of legislation, the short cut triggered a wave of time-consuming privilege speeches by opposition legislators.
The RH bill has been an albatross around the neck of the Aquino administration, as it has been languishing in the congressional dockets for nearly 14 years, and the government has come under pressure to draw up a policy on reducing the rapid population growth that, according to independent demographic-economic experts, have hampered high economic growth and government goals to reduce poverty.
The aborted debate in the House was the farthest legislation had gone among several population control bills filed in Congress since 1988-2001, all of which were opposed by the conservative and influential Catholic Church, to which belong 85 per cent of Filipinos. The fact that the Church has successfully blocked the bills for so long from going past the congressional committees attests to its political clout.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines castigated the House majority for voting to end the debates on August 6 instead of August 7, the original schedule, comparing it to the House’s decision in December to rush the impeachment case against then Chief Justice Renato Corona.
“Unfortunately, in a move remarkable in its stealth and swiftness, the ruling group of the House, on August 6, managed to force a vote that terminated the period of debates on the RH bill,” the CBCP statement said. “It came a full day too soon, just when no one was looking. We are dismayed by the display of naked power.” But despite their setback, the bishops insisted they had the numbers to block the passage of the bill on second reading.
The CBCP called the pro-RH lawmakers “schemers,” and described Mr. Aquino as an “intrusive” president for pushing the passage of the bill. The president met with 182 congressmen in the Philipine Palace for lunch hours before the August 6 vote. He told the legislators that the bill had been through so much debate and everybody was already familiar with the issues. He just wanted to end the debates that had been going on for years, he told his House allies, exhorting them to move on to the next legislative process—that of amendments—to perfect the measure. But the bill’s opponents could not be muzzled, because under the House rules, privilege speeches take precedence over other motions, except for a motion to adjourn or a question of quorum.
As soon as the majority decided viva voce on August 6 to end the interpellation, opponents of the bill queued up to deliver privilege speeches and to question the quorum, using up two sessions in a week. The delays caused by these filibustering tactics prompted House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales to lament that the bill had now been caught in the web of “parliamentary warfare”.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. was forced to admit that the bill had encountered rough opposition. This time, they could not blame the diabolical machinations or schemes of the Catholic bishops for the unravelling of the legislative timetable. The House rules did the lawmakers in, not the pious injunctions of the bishops against the use of contraceptive devices designed to stem rapid population growth. The lack of quorum is not only delaying the completion of the bill but may also be a sign that the House has been overcome by RH bill fatigue, which might lead to its untimely demise.
According to Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, the House is divided deeply over the RH bill. But he believes its opponents have the numbers and are ready to propose amendments for every provision. He thinks it will not be feasible for the House leadership to draw up a timetable for the passage of the bill, like the budget bill, because of the volume of amendments. He has urged the House leadership to abandon the bill and focus on more crucial legislation, like next year’s budget. “For the sake of unity, I suggest they withdraw the bill,” Rodriguez said. “This is polarising, too divisive. We can’t have that situation in Congress. It will be gridlock.”
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, the principal author of the RH bill, wants it to move forward despite the odds so that its fate can be finally known after malingering for 14 years. He, too, is afflicted by RH bill fatigue.
He has proposed a slew of amendments. Lagman maintains that the Catholic Church “is out of touch with the sentiments and preferences of the Catholic majority.” He claims surveys show that 71 per cent of Catholics are in favour of the bill.
The proposed changes suggest that the RH bill is not a population measure and should tie responsible parenthood and family planning components to antipoverty programmes. This context appears to present the bill as a social reform legislation aimed at reducing poverty and not at curbing the population. This is an attempt to repackage the bill to project the administration as propoor.
But this repackaging will come off only if the bill survives the gridlock that has paralysed the legislative process after the gag on the debate. This is the biggest threat to the bill, not the opposition of the Church.