Ombudsman urged to probe 'chronic absenteeism' in House

MANILA, Philippines – Civil society leaders from 14 Mindanao-based groups have urged the Office of the Ombudsman to look into the "chronic absenteeism" in the House of Representatives that has hampered its work on important bills, particularly the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

The leaders made the appeal in a letter to Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales on Tuesday, December 2, seeking an investigation into the regular tardiness of lawmakers that has pushed the legislative branch "into a state of paralysis." 

"Since Congress formally opened in July, sessions after sessions were suspended and adjourned at the House of Representatives for lack of quorum....This chronic absenteeism surely erodes public trust and is a public display of neglect of duty,” the signatories said.

They denounced the lawmakers for exempting themselves from a "basic government policy on reporting for duty."

"What is the policy for their absences? Can they still claim compensation even if they are absent from work?" they asked the Ombudsman.

The group also stressed that the suspension of sessions for lack of quorum had pushed back progress on the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro bill. They noted that House members have "failed to muster a quorum every time the proposed BBL is calendared to be taken up on the plenary floor." 

"The only time a quorum was achieved since sessions resumed in July was when the chamber tackled the proposed Salary Standardization Law," the group noted.

Both the House and the Senate pledged to pass the BBL on December 16, before the Christmas break. But the continued lack of quorum dims the possibility of its passage.

Based on House rules, a quorum is achieved when more than half of the 288 lawmakers are present. But the number of attendees does not reach the requirement as proven by "more empty chairs than people," the group lamented.

The signatories to the letter are the following:

Ease rule on quorum

To push Congress to meet its deadline on the BBL passage, advocates of the measure had asked the House leadership to ease the rule on quorum. (READ: Global terrorism highlights need to pass Bangsamoro bill)

Former Constitutional Commission chairman Christian Monsod, activist Cheng Rasul, and former senators Aquilino Pimentel Jr and Leticia Ramos-Shahani met with Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to pass the BBL.

During that meeting, they asked that the BBL discussions proceed even without a quorum, stressing that there are enough "warm bodies" in the session hall during plenary.

Pimentel argued that the rule on quorum can be eased on BBL deliberations "as an exception to the general requirement because of the higher objectives in the search for peace in Mindanao." Otherwise, he said, "more lives will be lost."