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Breaking the rules

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When one hears the phrase “CNMI lawmakers as lawbreakers,” some of the immediate images that come to mind include those that were jailed for illegal drug possession, illegal catching and smuggling of endangered or protected species, and those that hired so-called “ghost” employees.

Any lawmaker’s fall from grace could also be avoided if the House of Representatives and the Senate enforce their own “Rules of Procedures,” or so-called house rules.

We’re not just talking about violations of the code of official conduct which is part of the house rules: falling asleep in their seat, shopping online or checking their Facebook during legislative sessions, purportedly going to the restroom every time a vote on a controversial bill becomes imminent, showing up at sessions unprepared, wearing improper attire, or unexplained absences from committee meetings.

Lawmakers’ own house rules require them to conduct themselves at all times “in a manner which shall reflect creditably” on the House of Representatives or Senate.

The House and Senate may suspend or expel a member by a three-fourths vote of each house’s total membership simply for violating the Official Rules of Procedures, along with commission of treason, a felony, or breach of the peace.

Past legislatures either turned a blind eye to their members’ rule violations or were simply ignorant of their own House or Senate rules. As the saying goes, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Right now, an Ad Hoc Committee on Rules chaired by floor leader George Camacho (R-Saipan) is reviewing a resolution to adopt the “Official Rules of Procedure for the House of Representatives” and is expected to make its recommendation to the full body. This is an opportune time not only for the committee but also every lawmaker and the general public to take a close look at House Resolution 19-5 and offer suggestions.

Remember those times in 2013 and 2014 when even lawmakers didn’t know where some of their colleagues went? It turned out those lawmakers went on trips to Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Manila to meet with individuals involved in casino operations. A few months later, a bill allowing an “exclusive” casino on Saipan passed both the House and Senate without public hearings.

While those lawmakers notified the House and Senate leadership prior to their trip that they will be off-island on “official business” on certain days, there was no mention of where they were going, for what purpose, who were they going to meet, or who would be paying for their trip. They didn’t follow their existing house rules and nobody compelled them to do so.

Members who travel on official legislative business are supposed to submit a written or oral report to the House during the next regular session after their return. That required report, according to the house rules, “shall summarize the official business activities undertaken during the trip. If no report is submitted, the cost of travel shall be deducted from the member’s salary.”

No such official reporting happened. If there ever was, it wasn’t disclosed to the public. It also remains uncertain whether anyone requested the Office of the Public Auditor to audit or investigate those trips.

That’s why to this date, there are still doubts and suspicions of corruption or at least conflict of interest involving those lawmakers who made the “casino” trips, including now Lt. Gov. Ralph Torres, now Senate President Victor Hocog (R-Rota), casino bill author and now vice speaker Ralph Demapan, and others.

The public has the right to know where their elected leaders go when they claim to be on business trip and officially representing the CNMI abroad. In reviewing H.R. 19-5, the 19th Legislature should put more teeth in their house rules in the area of attendance and travel, among other things, by requiring that all “official business” travel notifications must include the specific places they’re headed to, the meeting dates, the specific reason for the meeting (for example, to meet with casino businesses or geothermal energy exploration fact-finding mission), the specific individuals they’re meeting with and their affiliations, and the entity that will pay for their trip, accommodation and other expenses.

Year after year, the House rules require committees to submit a written report to the speaker “within 60 days” from the date a bill was referred to them. This is also not followed most of the time.

Certain committees were also known as black holes for referred bills in past legislatures.

And chances are, you have come across a bill with a title that only indicates amending sections of the Commonwealth Code without specifying what it’s all about. The house rules require that the title of all bills and resolutions introduced or pre-filed “shall be clearly written to express the intent and purpose of the measure.”

The house rules state that the mere or sole act of stating or identifying the existing section of the Commonwealth Code to be amended is “prohibited.” Except for commemorative resolutions, “no bill or resolution that has not been offered for public comment shall be finally passed.” That’s also in the rules.

There’s no such thing as voting “yes with reservation” or “no with reservation.” It’s only a “yes” or “no” vote. Or “abstain.” And upon the second call of the roll, a member may vote “present.”

Some would also use a language other than the prescribed English, Chamorro or Carolinian when voting. The list goes on.

The 19th House can also do more to compel lawmakers to undergo drug testing in the wake of drug cases involving sitting lawmakers during previous legislatures.

Even HR 19-5 that is under review does not require mandatory drug testing among members of the 19th House of Representatives. Only “employees” of the House remain subject to the Drug-Free Workplace Policy.

Efforts to make it mandatory for lawmakers to undergo drug testing have failed, even as every legislature would have one or two sitting members figuring out in drug-related cases.

But just like having good CNMI laws that remain useless because they are not enforced, what difference does it make to have more stringent official rules of procedure when lawmakers disregard them or nobody compels them to do so?

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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