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SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - December 10, 2016 - 12:00am

What’s in your bucket?

Constitutional Change. Death Penalty. Condoms in schools. Right to bear arms. Gay marriage.  Abortion. Assisted suicides. If you think this carousel of ideas and other hot button issues are contentious now, just wait for the results of the Federalism debates.

Fourteen separate States/Regions? It could be less, it could be more depending on the final outcome of the deliberations. A Federal government is limited to legislating on enumerated subjects. Usually foreign affairs, national defense, immigration and other select areas. In contrast, the States/Regions exercise plenary power – to legislate on everything else. This is a 360 degree reversal of the existing order. At present, it is the legislative power of the National Congress that is plenary while that of the local government units is limited only to what is granted them by law.

What this means is that we may arguably have 14 different treatments of these always interesting topics. Take, for starters, the death penalty debate. The spectrum of positions go from unqualified yes to unqualified no. But it is a long and wide spectrum between the poles, i.e. yes but only for drug pushers, yes but only for drug coddlers, yes only for the most heinous of crimes. The permutations are limitless. And you are bound to see them all if there were 14 separate death penalty laws in the country.

Shades of grey. There really is more than one way to analyze every one of these topics. And we should bear this in mind when we engage our respective representatives on their intentions when these votes are scheduled in Congress.

The Senate, with only 24 members, will be an easy read for the death penalty debate. In fact, the safest bet is that Church and human rights groups will pitch camp at the Senators’ doorsteps. Last Thursday, the House decided to postpone plenary debates to January. For those who would like to have a word with their Congressmen, you know what Christmas gift to ask for when you see them over the holiday season.

The vote on the death penalty will likely precede the vote on Charter change and the anticipated federalism pivot. For many, it will be a litmus test on whether we can trust our congressmen. Edmund Burke’s classic formulation – “your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion” – may work with most decision making models, specially those requiring elaborate information. But for  gut issues, a different calculus applies. The voter does have the tendency to snatch the bullhorn and speak the speech himself.

This should presage a healthy discussion on the contents of the moral bucket we would leave to the individual federal states to grapple with. For instance, euthanasia and abortion also deal with killings. As issues, they have greater moral weight as they deal with the deliberate destruction of innocent lives. If we are ultimately to succumb to the experiment of a Federal form of government, these are the types of votes that the State/Regional legislatures will be making. In this set up, a more accountable representative relationship between voter and legislator is promoted as there is no need to worry about a national constituency. With a smaller electorate and easily identifiable sectors, platforms can be fleshed out more and voters can simply tailor their vote to the candidate who shares their moral code.

Bonanza. With a reformist President in Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the Philippines is sitting on the cusp of a breakout legislative bonanza. In addition to the death penalty and federalism, we have as well a long awaited tax reform package and the emergency powers proposal to solve our traffic problems and lower our  stress levels. This is a good time to be a legislator.

It is particularly reassuring to regularly behold the flurry of presidential activity. This is such a pleasant surprise as we never expected the oldest elected President to be even more robust than his predecessor. Killings, Leila/Leni and Presidential spin continue to dominate the media but just read past the headlines or listen past the top of the news and you will notice the blur of administrative decisions across the board. A working President inspires a bureaucracy to work as hard and, in turn, an active bureaucracy compels our lawmakers to be equally busy – supporting or monitoring them.

And setting aside all the political distractions (often self inflicted), we see a President whose bottom line continues to shine through – a commitment to change for the better. 

Jitters. The spectre of Martial Law continues to haunt the minds of many, what with the President’s impenitent penchant of trotting it out as a bludgeon of last resort. Even with all the cloves of garlic and holy water adorning the Martial Law power under the 1987 Constitution, its invocation can still strike fear in the hearts of many. This is understandable. Anyone who has lived under a regime where bullets and tanks substitute for civilian government will attest to its indelible effect on the psyche.

The anxiety is actually not unfounded. Despite the limited grounds to declare it (foreign invasion or rebellion); the power given to Congress to revoke it, and the duty imposed on the Supreme Court to validate it, it still is an extraordinary power once declared. Under Martial Law, a President can do anything he wants to get the job done. It is a 60-day limbo for separation of powers and checks and balances. And a 60-day exercise in trusting your life to the theory that one man can be counted on not to abuse this martial law power.

As such, the public discussion on Martial Law continues to be timely. And this is yet another prospective vote our representatives have to make – to revoke or extend the Martial Law declaration.

Its really a good time to be in Congress.

 

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