BY RAYMOND AFRICA and WENDELL VIGILIA
SENATE President Vicente Sotto III yesterday questioned the rush by which the House committee on constitutional amendments is pushing amendments to the 1987 Constitution even amid the health crisis that the country is experiencing because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Other senators also said Charter change advocates in the lower chamber are setting a “dangerous precedent” by insisting that committee discussions on proposed Resolution of Both Houses No. 2 is synonymous to convening a constituent assembly.
Sotto told reporters: “Whatever it is, they have to do it in plenary. Otherwise, that is not Congress proper. Ano ba pinagmamadali nila eh puwede nilang gawin sa Monday ‘yan sa plenary? (Why are they in such a hurry? They can do that in plenary on Monday when Congress resumes regular sessions) Can’t they wait?”
Rep. Alfred Garbin, chairman of the House committee on constitutional amendments, said congressmen are not rushing the process of introducing amendments to the Constitution but are only doing their jobs.
Garbin added congressmen are likewise not dictating on senators on how they should do theirs.
“We’re not rushing them (senators). What I’m saying is that since it’s the committee’s job to exhaust and exercise to the fullness the push for this constitutional reform, we’re just doing our job in the same way that we’re not dictating on them (senators) what they should do,” he told reporters in a mix of Filipino and English.
The chair of the House committee on constitutional amendments said his panel just continued where his predecessor, former panel chair and now deputy speaker Rufus Rodriguez, left off.
Garbin has received flak for saying on Wednesday that the House has allegedly effectively convened as a constituent assembly when he reopened discussions on proposed amendments to the economic provisions of the Constitution even without the participation of senators.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon said Garbin’s statement was “totally baseless” and warned that the House would be setting a dangerous precedent if it proceeds with tinkering the Charter sans the participation of the Senate.
Drilon said Garbin was wrong on his claims since senators and congressmen were elected as legislators to enact ordinary laws and “not as members of a constituent assembly to propose amendments to the Constitution.”
Drilon said that in order for the House and the Senate to propose amendments to the Constitution, Congress, with the two Houses voting separately, must convert itself, through a resolution, into a constituent assembly.
“Absent that resolution of both Houses, the proceedings in the House committee cannot assume the functions and powers of a constituent assembly,” he added.
Drilon added: “I suspect that Cong. Garbin is laying the basis to claim that the House alone, even without any senator participating, can propose amendments to the Constitution. Such claim is not only totally baseless, but (also) a dangerous precedent.”
“Without that authority, without Congress authorizing itself to convert into a constituent assembly, then Rep. Garbin’s declaration that his committee is already convened into a con-ass is invalid,” Drilon said.
He said Garbin’s declaration showed how far the supermajority in the House of Representatives would go to railroad Charter change (Cha-cha).
“They hijacked the powers of a constituent assembly. They bypassed the plenary powers of Congress. They basically hijacked the Senate. It sets a dangerous precedent. They are testing the waters. I see a sinister agenda behind this baseless assertion,” he said.
He called on his colleagues in the Senate and the public as well to be vigilant with such actions.
“We are still in round one and there seems to be cheating already. How can we even trust them? I call on my colleagues in the Senate and the public to be critical and vigilant about these fresh attempts for a Charter change. It is obvious how far they are willing to go to pass Cha-cha,” he added.
Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri also reminded congressmen that lawmakers Congress cannot sit yet as members of a con-ass since Congress is still on a 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 may be discussing approval on committee level,” Zubiri said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said such move is a violation of Article XVII of the Constitution which 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.
Garbin said the panel will continue to hold deliberations on the proposals until it is approved and referred to the plenary for debates, advising critics to just question the process before the Supreme Court once a “justiciable” controversy crops up because the High Court will not be able to act without one.
“We will continue to discuss the proposal and debate on it if there’s no injunction from the Supreme Court,” said the administration lawmaker who is a lawyer.
The Garbin panel 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.”
Leaders of major political parties and blocs have signed a manifesto of support for Speaker Lord Allan Velasco’s call that only the liberalization of the Charter’s economic provisions will be tackled to help the economy recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the manifesto, the political leaders vowed that the House will “deliberate only on the economic provisions” as specified in Velasco’s Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 2 filed which is being taken up by the committee on constitutional amendments.
They also assured senators that the House will remain consistent with its position that when Congress starts introducing amendments to the 34-year-old Charter, “the House of Representatives and the Senate shall vote separately.” The proposed amendments will be submitted to the people for ratification simultaneously with the May 2022 national elections, they said.
The signatories of the manifesto were majority leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez for Lakas-NUCD; deputy speaker Rep. Salvador Leachon of Oriental Mindoro for the ruling PDP-Laban; Rep. Michael John Duavit of Rizal for the Nationalist People’s Coalition; Rep. Robert Ace Barbers of Surigao del Norte for the Nacionalista Party; Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. of Cavite for the National Unity Party of which he is the president; Rep. Isidro Ungab of Davao for the Hugpong ng Pagbabago; deputy speaker Micheel Romero of 1PACMAN party-list for the Party-list Coalition Foundation Inc. (PCFI); and Rep. Rommel Rico Angara of Aurora for the independent bloc.
“We believe that now is the most opportune time to resume the deliberation on the amendments to the economic provisions specified under RBH No. 2 for the primary purpose of mitigating and providing lasting solutions to the devastating economic effects brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the manifesto read.