Sotto solution: Hold plebiscite for Charter amendment

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    BY RAYMOND AFRICA and WENDELL VIGILIA

    A PLEBISCITE to approve a “one-liner” amendment to the restrictive economic provisions of the 1987 Constitution would resolve mounting discussions on how to go about with Charter changes being pushed by the House of Representatives, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said yesterday.

    Sotto said the plebiscite can be held simultaneously with the 2022 national and local elections.

    Sotto said the process will dispel doubts as to the real agenda of Charter change advocates who have resumed their push for amendments to the Constitution.

    And while Sotto seemed to have found the way to resolve current political discussions on how to effect revisions to the Charter, members of the House committee on constitutional amendments continued to debate over what mode should be adopted to pursue their agenda.

    Yesterday, committee chairman Ako Bicol party-list Rep. Alfredo Garbin said the House of Representatives started meeting as a constituent assembly (con-ass) when his panel re-opened its deliberations on proposals to amend the restrictive economic provisions of the Constitution even without the participation of senators.

    “Yes, we’re sitting as a con-ass, exercising our constituent powers,” Garbin told SAGIP party-list Rodante Marcoleta who echoed the question of Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate who asked if yesterday’s committee hearing was already being undertaken “in the context of a constituent assembly.”

    Garbin’s announcement was immediately opposed by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, who said that a con-ass can only be convened with the participation of senators who should vote jointly with congressmen.

    “It’s strange to me because no committee of the Senate or the House, including the committee on constitutional amendments, can sit as a constituent assembly because it’s composed of members of the House and the Senate in a joint meeting or assembly. The House by itself cannot meet as a constituent assembly,” Lagman said.

    PLEBISCITE

    At the weekly online Kapihan sa Manila Bay media forum, Sotto said the public can vote to approve or reject the one-liner amendment “as may be provided by law” during the 2022 elections.

    The plebiscite mode, Sotto said, will effectively put an end to speculations that lawmakers are planning on inserting political amendments, such as term extensions or a “no election” scenario, during the Cha-cha process.

    Sotto said people are very doubtful of any amendments to the Charter if it will done now since the elected officials’ terms of offices are nearing expiration.

    “If we are just aiming for the economic provision, that one-liner amendment would be enough. That will dispel all other issues like doing away with term limits or extended terms. If the people want it, we can add this one-liner in the Constitution,” Sotto said.

    He added: “In the economic provision, we can add this one-liner ‘as may be provided by law’ so it can be addressed by Congress thereafter, in the 19th Congress…That will now give Congress a free hand to interpret the issue of our media, the issue of our ownership, the issue of trade liberalization.”

    Sotto said he has already discussed the issue with House secretary general Mark Llandro Mendoza last Sunday. Another meeting, this time with House leaders, will be held soon, according to the Senate President.

    The process of the one-liner amendment is similar to the regular approval process of any proposed bill in either houses of Congress. Once the measure and enacted into law, “it will go through a plebiscite. Bottomline, it goes to the people. After submitting to the Palace, it goes to the people,” Sotto said.

    CON-ASS

    Gabrin, a lawyer, said the Constitution does not provide specific rules on how Congress should go about exercising its constituent powers of amending the Charter so it can adopt its own rules, which, in this case, is treating the proposed amendments as an ordinary piece of legislation that will need the Senate’s approval.

    He said the House is already deemed sitting as a con-ass whenever it tackles proposed constitutional amendments since it is nothing but a “group of elected representatives that has the power to rewrite or change the country’s Constitution.”

    “There’s no need for prior acts to convene itself as a constituent assembly,” he said citing the interpretation of constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas. “We don’t have to change our physical form, change our appearance.”

    Lagman cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Gonzales vs Comelec in 1967 where the High Court clarified the distinction between Congress’ legislative power and its constituent power to amend the Constitution.

    Since the members of the con-ass are not sitting as legislators but as constituent members of the assembly, he said the voting should be undertaken jointly “because senators and representatives are not there acting as legislators but as members of a constituent assembly.”

    Article XVII, Sec. 1 of the Constitution states that “any amendment to, or revision of, this Constitution may be proposed by: (1) the Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its embers; or (2) a constitutional convention.”

    Section 4 of the same article states that revisions to the Constitution under Section 1 “shall be valid when ratified by a majority of the votes cast in a plebiscite which shall be held not earlier than 60 days or later than 90 days after the approval of such amendment or revision.”

    Further citing Bernas’s interpretation, Garbin said House and the Senate may does not even have to sit in a joint session since they have the power to decide how to go about the process which includes passing piecemeal amendments like how they pass ordinary pieces of legislation but this time, voting separately which requires the constitutional three-fourths vote.

    Garbin’s interpretation was backed by his vice chair Lorenz Defensor who even told Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun that the three-fourths vote should also be applied separately by both chambers when approving the final version of the constitutional amendments approved in the bicameral level.

    JOINT VOTING

    SAGIP party-list Rep. Marcoleta called for a joint voting with senators, a move that would expectedly not sit well with senators whose votes will be diluted because they are extremely outnumbered by congressmen.

    “Why are we even proposing amendments when nothing will happen if the three-fourths vote (of all members) is not secured in the Senate?” he said in Filipino. “However, when we do joint voting, we’ll surely have the numbers.”

    Once a “justiciable” issue has cropped up, Garbin said these constitutional issues will have to be decided by the Supreme Court which Lagman said “will definitely stall the proceedings.”

    “Most probably, we’ll have no have sufficient time (to finish the amendments),” said Lagman, asking his colleagues to revisit the Gonzales vs Comelec case.

    Garbin, however, pointed out that the Tribunal will only be able to act if there is a justiciable controversy such as right after Congress approves the proposed economic amendments.

    Sotto reminded the Garbin panel that convening a con-ass without the participation of senators is a violation of the Constitution. “If we want to tinker with the Constitution, we have better make sure our rules and procedures are sharpened!” Sotto said.

    Sen. Panfilo Lacson echoed Sotto’s statement, saying Article XVIII of the Constitution clearly states that “any amendment or revision of this Constitution may be proposed by Congress.

    “Last time we heard, the Congress of the Philippines is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Patawarin natin sila, Hindi nila alam ang ginagawa nila (Let us forgive them for they know what they are doing),” Lacson said.

    Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said Congress cannot sit yet as a con-ass since it is still on break.

    “With all due respect to my good friend Congressman Garbin, Congress is in recess so I’m not sure how there was plenary action on their resolution to form a constituent assembly. Our rules only allow committee hearings to take place during the break. So he maybe (he is) discussing approval on committee level,” Zubiri said.

    The Garbin committee is discussing proposed Resolution of Both Houses No. 2, filed by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, which seeks to liberalize the “restrictive” economic provisions in the Constitution which Velasco said “prevent us from becoming fully competitive with our Asian neighbors.”

    The Speaker is proposing 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.”

    5,000 SIGNATURES

    Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya presented to the House panel 555,610 signatures from different provinces which he said signifies grassroots support for “surgical” amendments to the 1987 Constitution.

    Malaya, who is also a part of the Inter-agency Task Force for Federalism and Constitutional Reform, said the signatures were gathered during a roadshow promoting education in different parts of the country of the merits of amending certain provisions in the Constitution.

    In addition to the more than 500,000 signatures, Malaya said 1,489 municipal mayors have also expressed support for amending the Charter.

    Three professors emeritus from the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE) also backed the House leadership’s renewed Charter change initiative which has drawn criticism since it is being pushed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. – With Victor Reyes