Palace won’t meddle in Cha-cha tug-of-war
(The Philippine Star) - January 21, 2018 - 12:00am

No need to rush federal charter – Nene

MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang will not meddle in the tug-of-war between the Senate and the House of Representatives over moves to craft a constitution for a federal form of government.

“Let Congress do its job as a constitutional assembly,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said yesterday at a press briefing in Aklan, even as he emphasized the administration’s desire for constitutional changes to pave the way for federalism.

He also expressed hope the two chambers would come to an agreement on the issue of joint assembly and joint voting on amendments.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has vowed to push ahead with the plan to convene Congress as a constituent assembly (con-ass) with or without the senators.

It’s a tack Alvarez cannot just force on the people even if he is in the ruling party, said former Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

“It’s improper that just because you are in the majority you will ram everything down the throats of people,” Pimentel said at a forum in Quezon City.

He was replying to a reporter’s question on whether it’s appropriate for Alvarez to threaten provincial leaders with zero-budget if they don’t support federalism.

The former senator – father and namesake of the current Senate president – said the public should be properly educated about federalism and not forced into accepting it hook, line and sinker.

He said local officials should be guided by their conscience and not be cowed by threats from Alvarez.

“It’s up to them. There are ways of doing it,” Pimentel said, referring to ways provincial chiefs could deal with Alvarez’s threat.

“In the caucuses, for example, you can speak out freely on what you feel so it would be made known to the Speaker that nobody stays in power forever. There is always an end to a person’s power,” Pimentel said.

He emphasized he was not calling for a rebellion within the House of Representatives and that he was only reminding lawmakers of their duty to the people they represent.

“The members of the House should always remember that they are in public service to serve the public and not just the interest of one person,” he said.

Senate leaders also again called on the House to stop pressuring them into acting on its resolution convening Congress as a con-ass.

The proponents of Charter change (Cha-cha) in the House have also taken the position that approval of the amendments would require a vote of three-fourths of all the members of the Senate and the House sitting as one body.

Pimentel reminded the members of the House that the Senate has already taken a stand that voting on amendments to the Constitution should be done separately and not jointly in accordance with the 1987 Constitution, and as shown in the minutes of the Constitutional Commission that crafted it in 1986.

“The problem is that this ‘best in the world’ Constitution was poorly written on the matter of amendments,” said Pimentel, apparently taking a swipe at former Chief Justice Hilario Davide’s description of the Charter and his stand against amending it.

Even in cases where joint voting is necessary, such as on the concurrence of Congress in the extension of martial law, there are procedures that must be followed, such as each side notifying the other that it is ready to go into joint session.

As such, Pimentel said the House must wait for the Senate to give its concurrence to convening a con-ass.

The Senate committee on constitutional amendments, revisions of codes headed by Sen. Francis Pangilinan has resumed its deliberations on the proposed amendments to the Constitution and has scheduled a number of hearings in Manila, Northern Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.

The elder Pimentel, who is among the prime movers of the shift to federalism in the country, said that he is happy with Pangilinan’s making a commitment to conduct hearings on Charter change. He said discussion on the issue should be done in good faith.

Usual legislative route

Pimentel said the assumption is that at the conclusion of the hearings, the Senate and the House would vote on the proposed amendments separately.

He urged the House to start working on specific amendments, approve them with a vote of three-fourths of its members and send the results to the Senate.

The same procedure would apply in the Senate.

“With passage of time and while the issues are being studied thoroughly, then who knows, there could be a meeting of the minds,” Pimentel said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon also urged the members of the House to wait for the Senate to finish its work.

“We can talk once we are done with our work. The hearings in the Senate will continue. They will act and we will act,” Drilon said.

He stressed that the House cannot undertake Charter change on its own, as doing so would be a violation of the Constitution.

“Probably the reason is that it’s his opinion, and we can’t do anything because they have an interest in cancelling the elections; their terms will be extended,” he said, referring to the position of Alvarez and his House allies.

“So we understand why they are insisting that the Senate could be excluded in the voting,” Drilon said.

Instead of dwelling on the idea of pursuing Charter change on its own, Drilon urged the House to act on the other pressing issues such as the approval of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law.

In a tweet yesterday, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said that somebody should tell Alvarez and his congressmen followers “that under a bicameral system, one chamber cannot unilaterally decide for both houses, not in the passage of the budget law, as in any piece of legislation, and certainly not in revising or amending the Constitution.”

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said Alvarez should not threaten unsupportive local officials just to get his wish.

“We debate on principles. If we lose, then we lose, but let’s not deprive our constituents,” Zarate said at a news forum. “My message to them is to take a stand on our principles,” Zarate said.

Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada also joined calls for congressmen to respect the independence of the Senate by following legislative procedures.

“The lower house’s plan to use constituent assembly as a mode to change the Constitution is illegal if it has no concurrence from the Senate,” Estrada said in a phone interview.

“It has to be the Senate and Congress that should make the decision together. The Senate is the upper chamber. The senators are voted in a national election while congressmen are elected by their respective constituents during the local elections,” Estrada said.

“It’s not right for Alvarez or any of the members of the House of Representatives to just impose on the senators. They must give due respect to the Senate or any co-equal branch of government. I believe that they should give due respect to the senators. Besides, they will be touching the primary law of the land, the Constitution. They cannot do it on their own,” Estrada said.”

More circumspect

For the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), a “more circumspect” con-con (constituitonal convention) and not an “overweening” con-ass should undertake the task of working on a new Constitution.

“Ours is a rigid Constitution, made so as a protection against firebrand changes,” the IBP said as it emphasized that any “major revisions designed to substantially alter the balance of power” should pass through a con-con. The IBP statement was signed by its national president Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo.

Any proposed revisions “must be set forth by the two houses of Congress voting separately in keeping with the deliberative nature of our bilateral legislative body.”

While the “constitutional process” may be “ambiguous” as stated in the 1987 Constitution, “it is clear … that the intent behind bicameralism continues to be the check and balance between the two houses, so designed for the enactment of better laws.”

For urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay), the administration lawmakers’ vigorous push for Charter change was in preparation for a dictatorial rule of President Duterte.

Kadamay national chair Gloria Arellano also warned that if Cha-cha pushes through, there will be more hardship for the poor, including demolition of urban poor settlements as well as higher taxes and prices of basic goods.

“It’s just the start of the year and we already face problems brought by TRAIN or Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion. With Cha-cha, government officials will all be exempt from income taxes. This is on top of the unending killings and corruption in the administration,” she said.

“It’s another promise of change that will only result in greater poverty, homelessness, killings and power for administration allies,” she added.  –  With Jess Diaz, Rhodina Villanueva, Jose Rodel Clapano, Lalaine Jimenea, Evelyn Macairan, Marvin Sy

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