Another divisive bill

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Avery controversial proposed law to allow absolute divorce in the Philippines went through voting on third and final reading a few hours before the 19th Congress adjourned sine die last May 22. At the end of the voting, the House of Representatives reported the proposed House Bill (HB) 9349, or the Absolute Divorce Bill, was approved with 126 “Yes” votes, 109 “No” votes, with 20 abstentions.

In obvious haste, however, the results of the voting did not add up to majority votes required under their own House parliamentary rules. It was immediately noticed by a veteran lawmaker just watching on the sidelines. In his personal “X” (formerly Twitter) account, erstwhile Senate president Vicente “Tito” Sotto III called them out for the blatant error.

Sotto, who twice headed the 17th and 18th Congress as Senate chief, warned the House voting on HB 9349 could be challenged. Under parliamentary rules, he argued, the “abstentions” have the effect and are considered with the “No” votes, Sotto cited. If there were 20 abstentions and 109 “No” votes, then it would total to 129 votes. “Therefore, the motion is lost. Parliamentary rules need majority of the quorum,” Sotto pointed out. Sotto argued the vote count should comprise majority of the 255 quorum obtained in session that Wednesday night.

Apprised about the hullaballoo on the results of the voting, Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez directed House secretary-general Reginald Velasco to check their records. The House secretariat traced the error to ensuing confusion after several House members withdrew their votes after the counting was completed.

Some House members changed their votes on the absolute divorce bill, either from “Yes” to “No” or vice versa.

The office of the House secretariat subsequently rectified its apparent mix up in the voting results that would be sent back for plenary approval. Velasco clarified a total of 131 congressmen voted in favor, and not 126 as earlier reported. Velasco issued the press statement through its social media account a few hours later that night.

“When a parliamentary body reports a vote in plenary then changes the following morning not in plenary, ano ang tawag dun? Sumabit! And they have the tenacity to say I was wrong,” Sotto riposted on his “X” account on the same day.

Taking up the cudgels for the House, Rep. Edcel Lagman shot down with fire and brimstone Sotto’s arguments on the faulty voting results on the divorce bill. As the principal sponsor and one of the many co-authors of HB 9349, Lagman accused Sotto of using the issue to promote his comeback bid at the Senate in the coming May 12, 2025 midterm elections.

“Whether the winning margin is 126 to 109 as initially reported or 131 to 109 as later corrected by the Office of the Secretary General, does not affect the ultimate legality of the final approval of the divorce bill,” Lagman maintained. Taking a swipe at the erstwhile Senate chief, Lagman asserted: “The Absolute Divorce Bill will become a law before former SP Sotto goes back to the Senate.”

Although the absolute divorce bill is not included in the priority bills under the common legislative agenda of Congress with Malacañang Palace, Lagman boldly predicted President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) will sign it into law.

Lagman, who is the current president of the moribund Liberal Party (LP), locked horns with Sotto, who heads the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) that recently inked an alliance agreement with PBBM’s Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP).

Lagman believes the Senate will approve its own version of the absolute divorce bill despite the stiff objections of the country’s Catholic Church bishops and leaders. Lagman may need to recalibrate his bold prediction. Newly installed Senate president Francis “Chiz” Escudero, a fellow Bicolano of Lagman, already declared he is not in favor of absolute divorce. Escudero also happens to be NPC partymate of Sotto.

Known as a staunch supporter of the Catholic stand against divorce, Sotto strongly took exceptions to Lagman’s rebuttal. “I am for expanding and relaxing prerequisites for annulment,” Sotto clarified. But do it the proper way, he stressed.

Like Sotto, Escudero believes in expanded annulment to make it more accessible and affordable to estranged Filipino couples. Having a failed marriage before, Escudero got annulment. Escudero later married TV-movie actress Heart Evangelista.

HB 9349 is actually the consolidated measure of several similar bills filed by various House lawmakers such as former Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez of Davao del Norte. Incidentally, on the penultimate day of their sessions, the Lower House voted 186-5 with 7 abstentions to censure – not to suspend – Alvarez for “disorderly behavior.” This was after Alvarez, in his speech made before a prayer rally held last April 14 in Davao City, called for a withdrawal of the military’s support to PBBM, their commander-in-chief.

Alvarez conceded the verdict to House peers: “I deserved to be punished.”

Alvarez staunchly promoted the passage into law of the divorce bill, which he first filed during the 17th Congress while he was still Speaker. Alvarez, however, was subsequently ousted in a tumultuous opening session of Congress on July 23, 2018.

He was replaced as Speaker by Pampanga Rep., former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who totally supported the Catholic position against legislating a divorce law in our country during her nine-year office at Malacañang.

By a twist of fate, Alvarez won his absolute divorce bill while Mrs. Arroyo lost her cause against it. While Alvarez graciously accepted House censure for his seditious remarks, he quietly rejoiced in his victory on the divorce bill.

Lagman did not say where his confidence is coming from that such a highly divisive bill like absolute divorce would finally be signed into law here. In our largely Catholic country, many Filipinos frown on divorce but tolerate legal separation and annulment of marriage as allowed under the existing Family Code of the Philippines.

The House secretariat released already to the public all the names of the House members who voted “Yes” for the absolute divorce bill. Will they face censure from the voters, aside from their respective spouses, for voting “Yes” to absolute divorce?

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