Senate set to hold caucus on Cha-cha

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
Senate set to hold caucus on Cha-cha
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, whose committee on constitutional amendments and revision of laws is mandated to tackle any Charter change proposal, yesterday said there is no schedule yet to hear the Resolution of Both Houses No. 2 filed by Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa.
Release from the Office of Sen. Kiko Pangilinan

MANILA, Philippines — Senators will hold a caucus soon to chart their next move on proposals for Congress to convene into a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, whose committee on constitutional amendments and revision of laws is mandated to tackle any Charter change proposal, yesterday said there is no schedule yet to hear the Resolution of Both Houses No. 2 filed by Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa.

“We would like to confer first with the other senators in an all-senators caucus before any hearing is to be undertaken,” Pangilinan said.

He recalled that arriving at a consensus through a caucus has been the practice of the chamber whenever a proposal to amend the Constitution is filed, as Cha-cha has always been a politically sensitive issue.

He, however, left the matter of holding an all-senator caucus to the Senate leadership. Pangilinan belongs to the minority bloc.

He has raised concerns about the timing of the resolution, noting that the government should focus on controlling and managing the health crisis so that the country can get back on its feet.

“Among the issues that can be discussed in the caucus would be the timing of Charter amendments, considering that the country is facing the worst economic and health crisis in recent memory,” he said.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the fresh move to amend the Constitution by Duterte’s allies in Congress was triggered by the Chief Executive’s desire to end the communist insurgency as well as ease investment restrictions in the Charter.

Sotto clarified that Duterte, during his meeting with leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives last December, asked lawmakers to fix the party-list system that he believes was prolonging the insurgency with the recurring election of congressmen with alleged links to communist rebels.

He stressed that Duterte was explicit in not seeking any term extension or postponement of the 2022 elections.

“I’m just the messenger of what transpired in our meeting and I only had to divulge and clarify because some quarters were saying that the President wanted Cha-Cha and term extension of officials and therefore no elections, which of course is absolutely untrue,” Sotto said.

Sen. Joel Villanueva, whose father Bro. Eddie Villanueva is deputy speaker of the House representing CIBAC party-list, agreed the party-list system has “a lot of room for improvement.”

“But the party-list system has reinforced a culture of accountability and provided another layer of checks and balance in our government, that I think cannot be simply ignored and overlooked,” Villanueva said.

Merits cited

He said the party-list system would have to be judged by its merits, claiming he has personally seen how the system has allowed the poor and underrepresented to participate in decision-making in government. He admitted though that Cha-cha could be a “hard sell” ahead of the 2022 elections.

He warned that amending the Constitution needs the full attention of everyone, particularly members of Congress, whose focus should be on a vaccination program and reviving the economy.

“I hope that talks on amending the Constitution would not be a distraction to what’s really important right now,” Villanueva said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he was not exactly convinced with Duterte’s solution to help end the communist insurgency by abolishing the party-list system.

“If indeed true that the President’s reason for reviving efforts to amend the Charter is to abolish the party-list system, or at least directed at particular party-list list groups, taking the Charter change route might be a bit too big a bite to take. Why? When we open the valve to amend the Constitution, especially via a constituent assembly, nobody, not even the highest officials of the three branches of government, can choose, much less assure, which provisions may be amended or not,” Lacson said.

“As an old adage goes, there are a thousand ways to skin a cat. If it’s true that Malacañang’s wish is only aimed at the Makabayan bloc in Congress for allegedly acting as legal and political fronts of the CPP-NPA, they should be a little bit more creative in accomplishing that objective without opening the floodgate to possibly tinker with the Constitution in its entirety,” he said.

Administration lawmakers said amending restrictive economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution could actually help boost the country’s recovery from recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local economy has brought to light the need to amend the restrictive economic provisions of our 33-year-old Constitution that impede the inflow of funds and investments crucial to enable us recover from the havoc brought upon by this public health crisis,” House constitutional amendments chairman Alfredo Garbin Jr. stressed, debunking the statement of Vice President Leni Robredo’s camp that the move would be a waste of time. Her camp said the government should focus instead on addressing the impact of the pandemic.

Economic stimulus

Ways and means committee chairman Joey Salceda also argued that the proposed amendments in Resolution of Both Houses No. 2 filed by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco would benefit the economy and may actually be considered as an economic stimulus measure.

“If we want to better position the Philippines, Charter change must happen now because our economy is still a long way from full recovery,” Garbin pointed out.

Garbin said his panel would handle the proposals “with fairness and transparency” amid concerns that other proposals on political provisions of the Constitution – including shift to federalism and term extension – might also be pursued by Congress.

“Just like other pieces of legislation passed within the chamber of Congress, it will go through the legislative process and will be voted upon nominally by each member of the House of Representatives,” he explained.

Garbin’s panel is set to resume hearings on the proposals next week.

Salceda, for his part, said the proposed amendments are long overdue.

“I support economic amendments to the Constitution, especially on the foreign equity restrictions. The restrictions have long held us back from pursuing the same kind of aggressive national development that our neighbors, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, have pursued,” Salceda said.

“At this rate, with our self-imposed restrictions, Myanmar and Cambodia will leapfrog us if we continue to tie our own hands,” the Albay congressman said in a statement.

“The economic amendments were written at a time when land was the most critical of all economic inputs. That is no longer the case now. In fact, there is little value in a foreign corporation owning land in the Philippines, with our highly sophisticated office space market. What the restrictions have inflicted upon us, instead, are domestic monopolies and oligopolies that offer little improvement in services,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group called Constitutional Reform (CORE) movement clarified it is pushing only for surgical and strategic amendments of certain economic provisions in the 1987 Constitution and not Cha-cha.

CORE national chairman Vicente Homer Revil denied allegations by opposition lawmakers that the new initiative is just a smokescreen to hide the Duterte administration’s bid to stay in power beyond 2022.

“There is no right timing to remove ‘restrictive’ economic provisions in the Constitution than now so that Filipinos could benefit from a more responsive and attuned time,” he said in a statement.  –  Edu Punay, Romina Cabrera

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