Cha-cha talks on amid criticisms: Velasco says changes needed due to pandemic

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    THE leadership of the House of Representatives is bent on making a last-ditch effort in trying to amend the 1987 Constitution despite criticisms that the administration’s move to force Charter change initiatives amid the COVID-19 pandemic is ill-timed.

    Speaker Lord Allan Velasco yesterday dismissed these criticisms, saying the country needs constitutional amendments all the more to cushion the economic impact brought about by the pandemic.

    “As global economies slowly start to reopen, we cannot allow the Philippines to lag behind in terms of investments and opportunities. We need to seize the momentum if we are to fully recover from the economic devastation of COVID-19,” says Velasco, who has instructed the House committee on constitutional amendments to prepare to hold hearings on the various measures seeking to change the Constitution.

    Velasco, author of Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 which seeks to amend the Charter’s economic provisions, said Congress has to enact laws “that will provide much-needed economic relief to our countrymen, especially during these unprecedented times.”

    RBH No. 2 seeks to liberalize the “restrictive” economic provisions in the Constitution which Velasco said “prevent us from becoming fully competitive with our Asian neighbors.”

    Vice President Leni Robredo slammed the administration’s new push for constitutional amendments, saying the timing could not be worse as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “It’s so wrong timing,” Robredo repeatedly said in Filipino on her radio program Biserbisyong Leni which is aired over RMN. “This is what we’ve been saying as early as the start of the pandemic: that we’re too busy doing things that have nothing to do with the pandemic.”

    Robredo reminded the administration of the assessment made by various independent agencies that the country is among the worst-performing in Asia and that its economy is the most vulnerable because policy support to cushion the impact of the pandemic is lacking.

    “This policy support will come from both the Executive and the Legislative and now we’re thinking of Charter Change?” said the Vice President, the leader of the opposition who is expected to seek the presidency in 2022.

    The Vice President recalled that at the height of the pandemic, lawmakers were able to approve the new anti-terrorism law and reject the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp “and now we’re doing Charter change during the pandemic.”

    “Haven’t we learned our lesson? Haven’t we learned that we should be focusing our attention, energies on things that make the lives of our people difficult? Robredo said.

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III earlier said the President wants Congress to abolish the party-list system allowed under the 1987 Constitution because of the perceived involvement of sectoral groups such as the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives with the communist movement in the country.

    ACT party-list Rep. France Castro, a member of the Makabayan bloc, has warned that Congress, once it is convened as a constituent assembly, will be able to tackle any provision in the Constitution.

    She said the President’s latest threat “is another desperate attempt of the Duterte administration to hold on to power, silence critics and remove those who have been exposing their shameless and disrespectful acts which ultimately make the Filipino people suffer.”

    Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon has said he and Senators Risa Hontiveros, Francis Pangilinan, and Leila de Lima will oppose any Cha-cha discussions on the floor.

    In filing RBH No. 2, the Speaker wants to amend Sections 2, 3, 7, 10 and 11 of Article XII (National Patrimony and Economy), Section 4 of Article XIV (Education, Science and Technology, Arts, Culture and Sports) and Section 11 of Article XVI (General Provisions) to add the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law.”

    He said the addition of this phrase will allow Congress to enact laws to free up the economy to foreign investors or maintain the status quo.

    “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,” he said.

    Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte, who is the principal author of another measure, said relaxing or lifting the Constitution’s “protectionist” provisions would help the country get back on its feet post-pandemic.

    He said it is the constitutional provisions putting a 40 percent cap on foreign ownership and barring foreign participation in certain sectors such as the media “that have been a deal breaker for prospective foreign investors.”

    “Our protectionist economic policy is an anachronism under the new global free economy or borderless world. This is why FDIs (Foreign Direct Investments) have remained relatively anemic,” Villafuerte said.

    The Speaker is eyeing to finish the House debates before the end of the year and present it to the public for ratification alongside the election of new leaders in the 2022 national elections.

    Velasco, who took the helm from former speaker Alan Peter Cayetano last October, assured the public that the debates on RBH No. 2 will be “transparent and fair.”

    His move to schedule the deliberations came after President Duterte reportedly threatened congressional leaders with a military takeover of Congress if it will fail to ensure the success of his latest push for constitutional amendments.

    Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said that to address suggestions for economic flexibility and in response to the President’s request, lawmakers can simply amend economic laws and the party-list law, which he said would be faster than convening a constitutional assembly.

    “We just have to amend that (party list system law), we can amend that. It is not necessary to amend the Constitution,” Zubiri said in a radio interview, adding: “On the economic provision, we already have proposed amendments to the Retail Trade Liberalization Law and Public Services Act… We can just amend them also.”

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson, in an interview with radio dzBB yesterday, said it will be very risky for Congress to convene into a con-ass.

    “Why should we touch the whole Constitution? If we open the Constitution, no one will never know what will happen to it. If there is con-ass, you can touch any provision. We do not have control over lawmakers on what provisions they will specifically touch,” he said.

    On the party list system, Lacson echoed Zubiri’s proposal that they can just amend it.

    “Iyon lang pala ang concern eh di i-amend na lang ang law sa party list (if that is the only concern, we might as well just amend the law on the party list system),” he added.

    He said another way of getting rid of unwanted party list groups is to file a disqualification case against them before the Commission on Elections. – With Raymond Africa