Legal experts: Wrong time for Cha-cha

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    THE timing is off for lawmakers to pursue amendments to the 1987 Constitution, even if it is just to relax restrictive economic provisions which advocates of Charter change say is necessary to offset the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) health crisis.

    This was the common position of retired Justice Vicente Mendoza and Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda University School of Law, which they presented to the Senate committee on constitutional amendments during its first hearing yesterday on the various bills relating to Charter change.

    Mendoza said amending the Constitution can be done when the next administration comes in. He said the Duterte administration should focus its efforts on ensuring the safety and well-being of its citizens amid the pandemic.

    Also, he said government officials must train their sights on how to hold an honest and credible election in 2022 while the country remains under varying lockdown levels and amid health COVID-19 protocols.

    “Our urgent need is to concentrate our time, energy and resources to meet the greatest challenges of our time: that posed by the deadly menace of the COVID-19 pandemic and that of holding free, credible and honest national and local elections in just 15months from now,” Mendoza said.

    Mendoza said the most important issue for the government to train its sights on is the immediate inoculation of Filipinos as he lamented that there has yet to be a clear national vaccination program.

    “Surely, even if, as reported by the Department of the Interior and Local Government, 555,610 voters support Charter change, as against the total (Philippine) population of 110,404,218 (UN data, Jan. 25, 2021) needing medical care, those supporting Charter change are a minority group,” Mendoza added.

    Mendoza said if Congress convenes for the cha-cha, it would be better for lawmakers to convene as con-ass and vote separately.

    “The two houses must meet in joint session but must vote separately because otherwise the Senate, being a smaller body (with 24 members) can easily be out-voted by more than (the) 290-member House of Representatives,” he said.

    Aquino questioned the motive of the administration’s allied lawmakers’ Cha-cha attempts.
    Aquino recalled that in 2018, President Duterte constituted a committee to study the 1987 Constitution “in view of proposing a draft that he could submit to Congress that would revise the Constitution, principally to put in place a federal system.”

    He said the committee was chaired by retired chief justice Reynato Puno and co-chaired by former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel who also delved on the issue of liberalization of the economic provisions of the Constitution.

    Aquino said he was one of the members of that committee which took “several months” to study, while conducting hearings, and deliberations to come up with a draft.

    But to his disappointment, Aquino said lawmakers “did not have much interest in charter change then.”

    At present, lawmakers have been batting to amend the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution to keep up to the times due to the effects of COVID-19.

    Aquino said he does not believe that this is the real reason for the proposed cha-cha.

    “I will not, however, accept the pretext that our concern with COVID-19 and whatever mutations might have arisen and will yet arise should be the main reason that we do not have charter change,” Aquino said.

    Aquino also said that proposing amendments to the Constitution takes a lot of time.

    “If our legislators were not confident about a draft that our committee took all of six months to write, with the members of the Committee working exclusively on the task at hand and meeting every day from morning to evening, should we be more confident about a draft that will be hammered out by an already overloaded and overworked legislature?”

    Aquino added.

    The Senate committee, which is chaired by Sen. Francis Pangilinan, tackled Resolution of Both Houses 1 (a resolution of both houses of Congress proposing amendments to certain restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution filed by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian), Resolution of Both Houses 2 (to convene the 18th Congress as a constitutional assembly to introduce limited amendments to the Constitution filed by Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa), and Senate Joint Resolution 1 (to propose amendments to or revisions to the economic provisions of the Constitution introduced by Sen. Richard Gordon).

    During the hearing, Pangilinan asked the resource persons what their positions were on three questions: (1) Is there a need to revise the Constitution? (2) Should the revisions be proposed by a constitutional assembly or constitutional convention? and (3) if Congress convenes as a con-ass, should the Senate and House of Representatives vote jointly or separately.

    Rep. Alfredo Garbin, House committee on constitutional amendments chair, has been defending the timing of the proposed Cha-cha, as he assured that only the economic provisions will be amended.

    Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon has said that Cha-cha can wait until the next administration since doing so at the near-end of a President’s term cast doubts as to the advocates’ real agenda.

    SEPARATE VOTING

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson filed Senate Resolution 623 to unequivocally clarify that voting to revise or amend certain provisions of the Constitution will be done separately via a ¾ votes of the Senate and the House with each house voting in plenary.

    Lacson said the House of Representatives is proposing amendments although still at the committee level.

    “Whereas, said proposition would not in any way diminish the amending process to the nature of an ordinary legislation, considering that in the exercise thereof, the members of Congress become a component element of a constituent assembly whose authority is derived from the Constitution as ruled by the Supreme Court in the case of Tolentino vs Comelec, G.R. No. L-34150, Oct. 16, 1971,” Lacson said.

    He said the same 3/4 votes of each of the two houses of Congress is thus required when they finally convene as a constituent assembly to reconcile their disagreeing proposals to amend the Constitution which he said is similar to a bicameral conference in ordinary legislation.

    “The difference between my proposal in the resolution and what the House is attempting to do based on their announcements to media is that they will do it on their own without the participation of the Senate, or at the very least make the senators irrelevant in getting the 3/4 votes required under the Constitution,” he added.

    Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the issue on voting separately or jointly on the matter of amending the Constitution has already been resolved.

    “Indeed, it is correct that we vote separately. The Constitution mentions voting separately, I think, three or four times. And only once has it (been) mentioned that we vote jointly and that is only in the case of martial law,” Sotto said.

    RESPECT

    House leaders and senior members yesterday disavowed any plan to nudge the Senate any which way with regard to the proposed revision of some provisions of the 1987 Constitution.

    Rizal Rep. Michael John “Jack” Duavit, who heads the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) bloc in the Lower House, said members of both houses of Congress will tackle the attendant issues as they see fit and at their own pace.

    “The House of Representatives accords full respect to the independence of the Senate. We will not try to corner them, push them or influence them in any way, especially make them look bad in the public eye,” the lawmaker said, appearing at the weekly Ugnayan sa Batasan media forum.

    Duavit added that the House has no intention of applying influence on anybody as it has its own plate full of legislative proposals and initiatives to tackle.

    “We are focused on coming up with a good product at the House and we hope the Senate will do the same thing. We can’t coerce or influence them,” Duavit said.

    At the same time, the Rizal lawmaker declared that the NPC‘s party stand is that no political amendments to the Constitution will be entertained in the House.

    “There will be no political amendments, purely economic,” he stressed, warning that any move to insert political amendments will be choked off. “Party leaders have already declared that any political (amendments) that will be raised … we will vote against,” he added.

    Garbin likewise issued assurances that any proposal that will seek to ease the term limit of elected officials will not be entertained by his committee.

    He had previously gone on record that amendments to the 34-year-old Constitution will be limited to the restrictive economic provisions in a bid to attract more foreign investors and create jobs for Filipinos.

    “Let me be clear to those who doubt our intention in holding the committee hearings: our effort is geared precisely to help the economy recover from the effects of Covid-19 pandemic,” Garbin said. – With Peter Tabingo