Bullying tactics on con-ass, stiff stalemate on voting

Through bullying tactics the House “super-majority” last Tuesday approved, by a voice vote (“ayes” and “nays”), Concurrent Resolution No. 9 which calls for Congress to act as constituent assembly or “con-ass” to revise the 1987 Constitution. The purported goal: to change the form of government from the current unitary to a federal system, a project being pushed by President Duterte.

This is how they did it.

By a motion questioning the quorum, the “super-majority” interrupted the minority’s first interpellator on Resolution No. 9, Rep. Ariel Casilao of the Makabayan bloc. After the quorum was affirmed with 187 members present (total House members: 292), the majority floorleader didn’t call back Casilao, as legislative rules require. Instead he immediately moved for voting on the resolution. Ignoring the loud objections of Casilao and his Makabayan colleague Rep. Antonio Tinio, Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn Garcia, then presiding, promptly put the measure to a voice vote sans debate.

Moreover, unusual zeal had been displayed by federalism proponents in the House as they fast-tracked, at committee level, the discussions on constitutional amendments that four subcommittees had worked on last year. The proposals were based on two draft charters: one under Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 8, the other drawn up by the PDP-Laban Federalism Institute.

RBH No. 8 calls for, among others, abolishing Congress; granting President Duterte legislative powers during the transition period to a federal government; abolishing current constitutional commissions; overhauling the judiciary; making Duterte the sole appointing authority; disallowing the citizenry from exercising “people power” (as they did in 1986); and diluting many of their rights. It also seeks to open the economy to further foreign participation and control by removing the protectionist economic provision of the 1987 Constitution.

The Makabayan bloc and other members of the minority denounced the railroading of Resolution No. 9 and the stifling of the opposition’s voice. Warning that the same tactics would be used in the entire Charter-change procedure, they vowed to continue opposing and denouncing every foul move by the House leadership.

The evident haste in the House to beat a deadline (May 2018, as set by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez), however, contrasts with the Senate’s deliberate pace in handling the Charter-change issue.

First, the senators held an all-party caucus on Tuesday and agreed to boycott a constituent assembly jointly with the House, with tacit understanding that any senator who opted to join the House con-ass would be subjected to sanctions. The senators unanimously agreed that the Senate should vote on constitutional changes separately from the House. This stance effectively threatens to stymie the plan of the House, which stands for voting jointly. Of late, Alvarez had pointedly suggested that the House act on Charter changes even without the Senate.

On Wednesday, the Senate held a public hearing on proposals to amend the 1987 Constitution towards a shift to federalism. Among the resource persons were former Supreme Court chief justices Hilario Davide Jr. and Reynato Puno, and former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. Their respective rationales and positions related to Charter change and federalism deserve keen attention.

If the 1987 Constitution were to be amended or revised, all three preferred a constitutional convention to do it. But if Congress eventually adopts the constituent assembly as mode, all three said the Senate and the House should vote separately on proposed amendments/revisions. On federalism, Davide opposed a shift, while Puno and Pimentel backed it up.

Davide, a member of the Constitutional Commission appointed by President Corazon C. Aquino that drafted the 1987 Constitution, said a shift to federalism is a “lethal experiment” that doesn’t suit the “people of our generation and even those of the succeeding generations.” If the objective is to resolve the governance imbalance caused by an “imperial Manila,” he added, this could be done by “effectively and efficiently” implementing the relevant provisions of the Constitution to attain “strong local autonomy and decentralization” and by amending the l991 Local Government Code.

Disagreeing with Davide’s “lethal experiment” view, Pimentel countered that going federal is “vital” in fostering good government and providing a good life for the Filipino people that the Local Government Code (which he had authored) aimed to achieve, but has not. “If we have to revise the Constitution to give meaning to the devolution intended by the [LGC],” he urged, “we might as well move forward to the scope and power” that can be afforded by adopting the federal system.

Sharing Pimentel’s sentiment, Puno observed that the decentralization of some national government powers to local governments had not worked to better address the needs of the people.

To effectively achieve decentralization, he explained, “you give real political, economic and social powers to the states [in a federal system].” And these powers, he added, will not be a grant from the national government “but from the Constitution itself, which means these states will have self-rule and self-determination.”

Thus a shift to the federal system, Puno emphasized, requires not a “surgical amendment” but a revision or “overhauling” of the 1987 Constitution. Why? Because, among other things, he pointed out, the philosophy of the federal government to be adopted has to be defined.

He rejected giving the task of rewriting the Constitution to Congress, and suggested a “hybrid” Constitutional Convention, which would be composed of non-partisan individuals, partly to be elected and partly appointed by the President.

In batting for separate voting should the Senate and the House eventually agree on con-ass, Puno warned: “We will destroy institutional equality [of the two chambers] if we interpret Article 17 [of the 1987 Constitution] to mean that the Senate and the House shall vote together and not separately.”

Regarding the “super-majority” of the ruling party (PDP-Laban), Davide doubted if it could act “with thorough deliberation” on the Charter change proposals that the party itself considered to be its platform. The group, he cautioned, could easily railroad the approval of its own party platform.

Pimentel, the PDP-Laban founder, characteristically spoke as a veritable elder statesman. Obliquely admonishing the “super-majority,” he encouraged the diverse members of the minority in the House to sustain the fight. Don’t allow the “super-majority” to trample on your rights, he advised. He also called on the people, if the constituent assembly gets under way, to participate in the process “proactively, actively, and decisively.”

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
Jan. 20, 2018

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