"What is our guarantee that lawmakers would really only focus only on the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution?"
Every administration after that of Cory Aquino tried to tinker with the 1987 Constitution and to change what they claimed were its restrictive economic and political provisions. But all of them failed as these initiatives were perceived as ultimately aimed at lifting term limits and extending the hold on power of incumbent public officials.
In short, the pre-eminent objective of Charter change was politics and self-interest rather than the national interest and the public good.
The Duterte administration’s latest move to begin the process of Charter change and to transform Congress into a constitutional assembly has engendered the same skepticism that greeted—and hindered—previous attempts to do so.
The opening salvo of the renewed Cha-cha blitzkrieg was the resolution filed in late December by Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa calling for convening Congress as a constituent assembly to introduce “limited amendments” to the Constitution.
The two senators said the Constitution needs to be changed “in order to aid the country in achieving economic growth, especially during this time of rising global uncertainty.” They did not specify what amendments would be introduced, saying that the amendments are only “limited to the provisions on democratic representation and the economic provisions of the Constitution.”
Taking the cue from this, the House of Representatives has started discussing the Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 filed by Rep. Lord Allan Velasco in July 2019. This resolution seeks to amend provisions that prevent foreign ownership of land and businesses in the country, and to ease restrictions on ownership and management of mass media, public utilities, educational institutions, investments and foreign capital.
“Foreign investment plays a crucial role in the Philippine economy by supporting domestic jobs and the creation of physical and knowledge capital across a range of industries. The need to attract foreign capital is critical to support our economy’s recovery from COVID-19,” Velasco said. He gave assurances that Congress would finish the debates before the end of 2021 and present it to the public for ratification alongside the election of new leaders in the 2022 national elections.
But the revved up Cha-cha train has run into a brick wall.
For Vice President Leni Robredo, reviving Charter change in the middle of a pandemic is “very ill-timed,” especially when the government should be discussing policy support to cushion the effects of the pandemic on the economy.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, a staunch Duterte ally, is against it as well. He said that while introducing one or two amendments can be discussed at this time, replacing the entire Constitution at this time is “nearly impossible.”
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said fresh attempts to amend the 1987 Constitution during a pandemic was “an exercise in futility” and that Cha-cha “has a zero chance of success in any administration that is already in the home stretch.” He vowed to oppose any moves to amend the Charter, along with Senators Risa Hontiveros, Francis Pangilinan and Leila de Lima. “Instead of talking about Cha-cha, let’s talk about how we can bring down inflation and let’s talk about how we can bring back lost jobs and livelihood opportunities,” the lawmaker said.
Former Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio has made it clear that the purpose of the House move to discuss Charter change at this time is “as clear as mud.” In a recent column, he said that “if the Senate and the House approve a Joint Resolution to convene as a constituent assembly, the die is cast. The Senate and the House may agree...to amend only certain provisions of the Constitution and that the Senate and the House will vote separately, but once Congress is convened as a constituent assembly, any member of the constituent assembly can move to amend any provision of the Constitution since the power of a constituent assembly is plenary.”
The retired Supreme Court justice said “the House is obviously wrong in thinking that by removing the nationality requirement in strategic industries, foreign investments will pour into the country...Foreign investors fear above all the absence of the rule of law in contract enforcement. Unless this heightened fear is addressed, foreign investors will avoid the Philippines like the COVID-19. Congress should find ways to remove this real and tangible fear instead of tinkering with the Constitution.”
We concur with what the opponents of Charter change are saying. We see Cha-cha not as the light at the end of the tunnel, but quite possibly as the headlight of an oncoming train that could derail efforts to address the need of the hour, which is to prevail over the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Congress transforms into a Constituent Assembly and begins to tackle changes in the fundamental law, will it really focus only on the restrictive economic provisions?
Indeed, what will stop the Constitutional Assembly from changing the whole Constitution and coming up with thoroughgoing political reforms as well, including the lifting of term limits of elective and even appointed officials?
Doubts about the sincerity of lawmakers in sticking only to the restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution reflect the low credibility of Congress in the eyes of the public.
While it is true that our Constitution should reflect changes in Philippine society and in the global arena as well, changing it should not be left to self-serving politicians and vested interests with the penchant for saying one thing but doing another, and talking out of both corners of their mouths.